(Reuters) - With a scintillating counter-attacking style and salsa-dancing celebrations, Colombia became the darlings of the 2014 World Cup where they shimmied their way to the quarter-finals.
But the “cafeteros”, as they are known in honour of the Andean country’s rich Arabica coffee, lost some of their swagger in the qualifying campaign for this World Cup.
They scored just 21 goals during the gruelling two-year, 18-match South American qualifiers and limped over the line with three points from their last four games to claim fourth spot.
Argentine coach Jose Pekerman will be striving to bring back the magic to a team that boasts Monaco striker Radamel Falcao and 2014 Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez.
There were glimpses of the old lustre during Colombia’s friendly against France in March, when the South Americans roared back from 2-0 down to beat “Les Bleus” 3-2.
“Colombia showed World Cup attitude,” a satisfied Pekerman said after the game at the Stade de France.
Colombians are also pinning their hopes on Falcao, known as “El Tigre” (The Tiger), who sat out the 2014 World Cup due to a ligament injury but is hoping to make up for lost time in Russia.
“I’ve imagined myself scoring a goal in the World Cup many times. I haven’t counted how many times, but yes, many times,” Falcao, 32, laughingly said in a recent interview.
Luckily for his canary-yellow-shirted squad, Colombia will face manageable rivals in Japan, Senegal, and Poland — with Group H the only one to lack a World Cup winner.
The liveliest showdown will likely be between Colombia, ranked 16th, and Poland, ranked 10th and back in the tournament for the first time since 2006 thanks to record scorer Robert Lewandowski.
Senegal, ranked 28th, will be competing in the World Cup for the second time after reaching the quarter-finals in Japan and South Korea in 2002.
Japan sealed their sixth straight qualification for the World Cup but are ranked a lowly 60th. Comfortingly for Colombia, they thrashed Japan 4-1 at the 2014 World Cup.
“It’s a level group, we have to compete very well to get through the first round,” Rodriguez, whose first name is pronounced “Hamez” in his adoring home country, said recently on Twitter.
“Difficult, but nothing is impossible.”
Colombia are in their fifth World Cup, with their quarter-final appearance at Brazil 2014 — where they lost to the hosts — their best performance.
Writing by Alexandra Ulmer, editing by Ed Osmond