Colombian yellow is back

November 5, 2013

Barranquilla, Colombia

By Jose Miguel Gomez

An entire stadium with over 40,000 fans dressed in yellow awaited the key match between Colombia and Chile. Only a couple of thousand wore Chilean red. We photographers arrived early to set up on the field in the 40C (104F) heat and 80% humidity. Every slight movement in the sun caused a burst of sweat.

Colombia only needed a draw to qualify for Brazil 2014. It was 16 years since we last qualified for the World Cup, and the fans inside the stadium and out were in a state of triumphal optimism. This was a whole new generation of players, and those who played for European clubs carried the biggest burden of setting the stage for a nationwide fiesta.

Chile, on the other hand, did play in the last World Cup. Commentators claimed that Chile is a dangerous team, but no one imagined what would happen later.

Barranquilla is famous for its Carnival. Costumed characters parade along 40th Street in the Caribbean heat, the same heat the players prepared to play in. In the stadium was one of those characters – a tiger – who, once he noticed photographers aiming at him, didn’t stop opening his massive jaws. There was also the omnipresent Cole, dressed as the emblematic Andean condor.

And there were beautiful women with their tight yellow jerseys. One supporter of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez wore a mask in support of her own country’s team, which was playing back home.

Soon after kickoff Colombia’s Teofilo Gutierrez missed a clear shot on goal which would have given the home team a quick advantage. But the match turned in favor of Chile and all the good action pictures were being taken on the side opposite from where I was. Colombia couldn’t gain control of the ball and I spent most of the time exchanging looks of disappointment with colleagues near me. We had no pictures.

Suddenly the referee called a penalty kick in favor of Chile, and the stadium went silent as all our hopes rested on goalkeeper David Ospina to block the kick. But Chile’s Arturo Vidal scored well beyond his reach, and the silence of 43,000 Colombian fans was more imposing than the screams of just 2,000 Chilean fans.

Colombia’s squad couldn’t wake up and the Chileans ran circles around our 11 yellow jerseys. In a few minutes came the second and third goals, for Chile. When the halftime whistle blew the stadium seem anesthetized. Only the relatively few Chileans celebrated. But the home fans didn’t lose hope, so when the 11 yellow jerseys hit the field for the second half, there was a deafening roar of fans yelling, “You can do it, yes you can…”

We had been coming to scorching Barranquilla for the past two years to watch Colombia thrash its rivals, thanks in part to the heat, but now Chile played like a local team. It was impossible not to feel the fans suffering, but I never lost my objectivity in taking pictures of the imminent defeat in a match that would define the honor of being in a World Cup.

Suddenly, when all seemed lost, there came a goal by Colombia. One more play later the referee called a penalty for Colombia, and our hero Falcao scored it. The stadium seemed about to burst with the heroico 2-3, even though Colombia was still a goal down. We continued to photograph the goals from the far side, envious as we watched our colleagues on the far side enjoying the players’ celebrations from close up.

There were 16 minutes to go in the match, with our Colombian hearts pounding. Chile stopped attacking and concentrated on defending its goal. They were effective in repelling every Colombian attempt to score, until in the 84th minute another penalty was called for the locals. Falcao strode up and scored again, pulled off his shirt and celebrated as players piled off the bench.

With tears in my eyes I kept my finger on the shutter as I felt the stadium explode. It was impossible not to feel it, not to live it, and not to stop shooting the match that ended in a 3-3 draw with Colombia qualifying for the World Cup.

Amid the chaos of an entire stadium in celebration, I focused on the players in my own silence – the silence of a photographer searching through the lens for smiles and hugs. They weren’t hard to find, now that these yellow shirts were finally returning to a soccer World Cup.

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