President Juan Manuel Santos

Soccer success is a welcome relief after a bitter presidential election split the nation over peace talks with Marxist rebels. President Juan Manuel Santos was re-elected.

“Football breaks down barriers, moves mountains, and it’s inspiring the optimism of Colombians, we’re really doing a very positive job in Brazil, and that makes us proud,” said Santos, congratulating coach Jose Pekerman’s team.

Progress at the tournament, the first time Colombia have won all their group games, is a vindication for Argentine Pekerman, who was scorned when he took over the reins two years ago but is now affectionately called ‘Profe’ or ‘Professor’.

Colombia qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1998 in October, before suffering a harsh blow when leading striker Radamel Falcao was injured.

It is not only 16 years of thwarted Cup ambitions which hang over the team – a player lost his life for his performance at the 1994 tournament.

Twenty years ago, Captain Andres Escobar, just back from the World Cup in the United States, was gunned down in Medellin – supposedly because his own goal cost Colombia their chance to move ahead.

But for most, the focus is now on the future, as they apprehensively measure the team’s chances on Saturday.

“Uruguay will be complicated,” said 21-year-old student Pedro Gonzalez, covered in celebratory flour and foam.

“I’m totally excited, there’s a deep sense of patriotism – it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, short, whatever – Colombia is behind them,” he added, as a bright yellow Mini Cooper glided past, an ecstatic passenger waving a flag out of the sunroof.

Fans are delighted Uruguay’s best player Luis Suarez will not play in Saturday’s game, after being banned by soccer’s world governing body Fifa for biting an opponent. Many think his absence will improve Colombia’s chances.

Others lamented one controversial Colombian rule of the game – a ban on alcohol sales. The so-called ‘dry law’ aims to cut post-match violence and drunk driving.

“Shame about the dry law,” said Christian Garcia, 23, in between blows on his vuvuzela, “We’re together as a country.” 

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