Colombia faces the United States on Monday, which is enough of a reason to shut down any good vibes American fans would want to send toward this year’s most entertaining upstart World Cup squad. Plus, there’s also the punch. When America played Colombia at the 2012 London Olympics, Colombia’s Lady Andrade ran up toward Abby Wambach from behind and punched her in the eye. Plucky, lovable underdogs aren’t supposed to inflict bodily pain on American soccer luminaries.
But I can’t help but root for Colombian success when the two teams square off again in the Round of 16. I don’t want to sound un-American or unpatriotic. But watching absurd amounts of college basketball every March for the last 20 years has conditioned me to support underdogs, and to at least crave a competitive performance even when Cinderella squares off against my favorite team. No. 28-ranked Colombia has the feel of a great underdog. It already sprang the biggest upset in Women’s World Cup history by beating No. 3 France, surviving and advancing in a sporting event where Cinderella rarely even attends the ball much less gets to dance.
Historically, you haven’t needed to know much about women’s soccer to predict with decent accuracy who would advance to the knockout stages. Just pick wealthy countries and a handful of very large, less wealthy countries. And never pick a non-Brazilian Latin American team to advance.
From 1991 to 2011, 17 different countries reached knockout round stages, which until this year’s tournament had featured eight teams. Only five of them had a per capita GDP outside of the world’s top 50 (Brazil, Nigeria, Russia, North Korea and China).
In the men’s Cup, we’re used to deep tournament runs by Latin American countries. Four of them made the quarterfinals last year, including Colombia. Becoming the first Latin American women’s team aside from Brazil to reach the second stage of the women’s Cup makes Colombia an ultimate underdog. Not only is the team breaking that barrier, the country is also one of the least wealthy countries left in the tournament, ranked 73rd in per capita GDP by the IMF.
Like all good underdogs, the team also has a cool factor. Its star player this tournament, Andrade, has bypassed the saccharine, aw-shucks attitude of “Rudy”-style underdogs for a swagger befitting our favorite modern underdogs, like Florida Gulf Coast’s “Dunk City” crew. She predicted a 1-0 or 2-1 victory against the U.S., telling USA Today, “We’re going to beat them since they like to talk so much.” Colombia also has the best nicknames, Las Chicas Superpoderosas and Las Cafeteras, which translate to the Powerpuff Girls and the Coffee Makers or Coffee Machines. Who doesn’t love coffee and cartoons?
Las Cafeteras began their late foray into major international tournaments in 1998 (making them the least experienced team of any country in this year’s knockout round) and started to show that they would become a factor in international play seven years ago when they took first place in the 2008 South American U-17 Women’s Championship. The development transferred to the highest level, with a berth in the 2011 Women’s World Cup.
Slights against women’s soccer are common everywhere, including here in the United States and in other countries with top teams, like Norway. Hell, FIFA is systematically discriminating against women every time one of them steps on the artificial turf fields of this Cup. This lack of respect is arguably deeper in Latin America, including, as of at least four years ago, in Colombia.
In 2011, John Turnbull wrote in The New York Times from Popayan, Colombia, of a country ambivalent at best about its presence in that World Cup. He asked soccer fan after soccer fan if they had heard of the team’s hyped midfielder Yoreli Rincón. Nobody had. Liliana Zapata, a former national team member, also described intimidation from men and older women who discouraged women from playing and described female soccer players using a derogatory term for “masculine” women.
Progress is happening, if only slightly. The Colombian Federation spent a total of about $2.7 million on Las Cafeteras from 2011 to 2014. The number sounds adequate until you realize it’s only 5 percent of the Colombian federation’s total budget. The men’s national team got 72 percent of it. In America, for fiscal year 2012-13, the women’s national team’s expenses were about $9.5 million, not too far behind $12.8 million of the men’s team. If this were the NCAA Tournament and based on finances, the USWNT would be the University of Florida; Colombia would be McNeese State.
In a sense, the American women are underdogs every time, too, fighting to live up to high expectations and to attract enough interest to keep a professional league alive. They’re also a reason why the rest of the world has invested in women’s soccer. Everybody wants to gun for the USWNT. Countries like Colombia, which didn’t have a real women’s national team 20 years ago, are starting to legitimately compete as the tournament has expanded in size to accommodate them and their fans. Against England—a country with one of the oldest traditions of women’s soccer—in the team’s final group play game, Colombia supporters reportedly constituted the vast majority of the crowd.
Colombia represents a future every women’s soccer fan should cheer for, even if as an American you’d prefer its last-second, Cinderella shot clank off the United States goalpost this time around.