May 24 (Reuters) - Factbox on the Colombia national team ahead of the 2018 World Cup:
FIFA ranking: 16 (till June 7)
Colombia are playing in their fifth World Cup, with their quarter-final appearance at Brazil 2014 — where they lost to the hosts — their best performance. The Andean country is best remembered for its 1990s team featuring characters such as eccentric goalkeeper Rene Higuita and blond-locked Carlos Valderrama.
Jose Pekerman: The silver-haired Argentine has led Colombia since 2012, pulling the “cafeteros” (coffee-makers) out of a lean period and propelling them to their first consecutive World Cups. He put faith in the talented squad’s attacking instincts and most notably in striker Radamel Falcao. Pekerman, 68, also had a two-year stint as coach of the Argentina team that went to the 2006 World Cup but lost to hosts Germany in the quarter-finals. He has a close link to Colombia, however, having played half his career as a midfielder for Independiente Medellin.
James Rodriguez: Fresh from clinching a sixth successive Bundesliga title with Bayern Munich, the 26-year-old Rodriguez will be hoping to keep up his winning streak in Russia. “Hamez,” as his adoring Colombian fans pronounce his first name, was top scorer at the 2014 World Cup and won over many in the public with his dazzling goals and dancing celebrations. There is much more pressure on the left-footed midfielder this time around, however, but ‘James-mania’ may well strike again.
Radamel Falcao: Monaco striker Radamel Falcao, 32, missed out on the 2014 World Cup due to a ligament injury. But “El Tigre” (The Tiger) is planning to roar back in Russia and has confessed to daydreaming about the goals he wants to score for the canary-yellow team.
Juan Cuadrado: The Juventus winger is feared for his fierce counter-attacks and goals from near-impossible angles. Cuadrado, 29, was unable to play for Juve for three months due to a groin injury but when he returned against AC Milan in March, he scored barely 15 minutes in to set his side on the way to a 3-1 win.
Colombia had a disappointing qualifying campaign but their attacking prowess and ability to turn games has been on display since. Trailing 2-0 in a friendly against France in March, they clawed back to beat “Les Bleus” 3-2 at the Stade de France. But Colombia were unable to beat Australia a few days later in a goalless draw that highlighted the South American team’s sometimes erratic form.
How they qualified:
Colombia did just enough to secure fourth spot in the South American group but they scored only 21 goals and limped over the line with three draws and a defeat in their final four games. Pekerman fielded 45 players in their 18-match qualifying campaign as he struggled to find the right formula to overcome an unexpected shortage of goals in a team brimming with top forwards.
With a formidable attack and a relatively manageable group, Colombia are highly competitive. Group H, where Colombia will face Japan, Senegal, and Poland, is the only one to lack a World Cup winner and should provide opportunities for the South Americans to rack up a few goals. (Writing by Alexandra Ulmer, editing by Ed Osmond)