Football: World Cup: Colombia desperate to restore reputation

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The Independent Online
COLOMBIA, A side as changeable in mood as the weather, have tried to bury memories of their terrible 1994 campaign but they face an early reminder of that World Cup debacle when they face Romania in Lyons this afternoon.

Tipped to be the sensation of USA 94 after losing just once in 34 matches, Colombia were brought down to earth by Romania, who defeated the South Americans 3-1 in their opening match, with Gheorghe Hagi scoring one of the goals.

Colombia never recovered and went out in the first round, but Romania reached the quarter-finals. They were seeded for the 1998 World Cup and expect to clear the first round hurdle again despite the loss of several experienced players.

"I am sure the team will make it to the second round," coach Angel Iordanescu said. "I respect Colombian football but I hope we can repeat the victory of 1994. It will be an open match, because the Colombians are capable of surprises."

That is an understatement. Colombia's coach, Hernan Dario Gomez, admits he can coach his players all he likes - but, if they are not in the mood for playing to their potential, he can do nothing about it. "If Colombia get up well, fresh in their minds, they won't have any problem," Gomez said. He has tried to make the side more pragmatic but know they like to express themselves, none more than the playmaker, Carlos Valderrama.

Now 36, Valderrama, and his famous mass of hair, still runs the show abetted by striker Faustino Asprilla and forays from midfield of Fredy Rincon.

But age seems to be affecting a side appearing in their third successive finals. Colombia came out of the World Cup warm-up without a victory from eight international games and performed well below par in their final tune-up last week when they struggled to beat a local regional side 1- 0. To make matters worse, the team doctor said that several players had the first signs of influenza.

Romania qualified easily for the World Cup finals and are one of the tournament's dark horses, despite the fact Iordanescu had to call up two relatively inexperienced defenders because of injuries. Liviu Cibotariu, brought into the squad after the defensive mainstay Daniel Prodan failed to recover in time from surgery, looks set to win only his fifth cap.

Th utility player Iulian Filipescu will replace Anderlecht's left-sided defender Tibor Selymes, still recovering from a knock to the right ankle.

Iordanescu, who has kept his team well away from the press, has persuaded his midfield general Hagi to track back when necessary to help the defence.

"I am very happy that Hagi sees the problem of the team's defence the same way everyone else does... but that doesn't mean he'll be playing too deep," said the coach.

Iordanescu made clear he wanted to see a good performance from the Valencia striker Adrian Ilie, dubbed "The Cobra" by adoring fans, who has recovered from a minor calf problem.

"I expect Ilie to have a great World Cup because he has great potential and above all must make sure that he can gradually take over from Hagi," Iordanescu said.

The World Cup debutants South Africa admitted yesterday that stage fright played a part in their dismal performance against France.

Their captain, the Leeds United player Lucas Radebe, said that he and his team-mates had been overawed by the occasion on Friday, when South Africa lost 3-0 to the home side in front of 60,000 fervent spectators in Marseilles.

"We had stage fright," added the midfielder Helman Mkhalele. "We couldn't settle down in the game. We lost confidence individually and collectively."

Radebe said the team had been taught a lesson by the slick performance of the French. "It was quite a shock. We didn't expect to lose by that margin, particularly as we had played against them before in France and lost by just one goal. It was a lesson and hopefully we've learnt from it."

South Africa's players say that, now that the burden of the opening game has been lifted from their shoulders, they are more confident about their chances of winning their next two matches against Denmark (on Thursday) and Saudi Arabia. "We'll relax more now and really focus on the next game. We know that will determine our fate," Mkhalele said. "The results from the other African teams has put pressure on us. We don't want to be the only team that lets Africa down."