CUIABA, Brazil (AP) — After 12 days of competition, Colombia has already achieved more than it could ever have imagined at the World Cup in Brazil.
They've reached the second round with a game to spare, won two matches at the tournament for the first time, and played with a vigor that has made the team one of the most exciting to watch in Brazil.
The Colombians can even lay claim to having possibly the loudest and most colorful supporters in the World Cup.
The biggest compliment that can be given to Jose Pekerman's side, however, is that Colombia fans — after nearly five months of mourning — have finally gotten over the absence of injured star striker Radamel Falcao.
Falcao was set to be one of the poster boys of the tournament, only to seriously injure his knee in a French Cup match in January while playing for Monaco. Such was the concern in Colombia that the country's president, Juan Manuel Santos, checked in to see the striker after his operation, but Falcao didn't recover in time.
Cue panic among "Los Cafeteros," but the fears have proven to be misplaced.
"Something really important has taken place," Pekerman said Monday through a translator. "I think everyone who knows football knows Falcao. For Colombia, he has been very important, he is one of the reasons we are playing in this World Cup.
"But the players have reacted in a positive way. For me, as a coach, this proves that my players have a strong character because they have played very well and shown wonderful performances."
Falcao is the name most prominent on the back of Colombia fans' replica shirts. They roar when his face comes up in pre-match announcements on the giant screens in the stadiums in Brazil.
He is still a big deal, but with Falcao absent — on the pitch, at least, as he is still hanging around the squad in Brazil — others have stepped up. Notably James Rodriguez, the playmaker who has scored two goals and been the focal point of Colombia's attacks in the 3-0 win over Greece and 2-1 victory over Ivory Coast that have secured the team a last-16 berth already.
For that reason, Pekerman has the luxury of being able to rest the likes of Rodriguez and key attackers Juan Cuadrado and Teofilo Gutierrez for Colombia's last Group C game, against Japan on Tuesday.
"We may consider protecting some players who have played a lot already, we will strike a balance," Pekerman said, without naming names. "We can make changes at the last second. Maybe we will want to make changes for many different reasons."
One of those reasons, Pekerman stressed, won't be so Colombia can hand-pick which team it faces in the last 16. By the time Colombia kicks off at the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba, the team will know who has finished first and second in Group D out of Italy, Uruguay and already-qualified Costa Rica.
"All three teams have huge potential," Pekerman said diplomatically, although he was more outspoken about his surprise at Japan's struggles so far in Brazil.
After just one point from their opening two matches, the Asian champions need to beat Colombia to stand any chance of overtaking Ivory Coast and finishing second in the group.
"I think that Japan's expectation were much higher, that's true," Pekerman said. "If we consider how they prepared, their friendlies, their qualifiers, they were the first team to qualify for the World Cup.
"If we consider this, how experienced the coach (Alberto Zaccheroni) is and that many of the players have played in World Cups, we thought they would have a better performance."