Colombia have arrived in Russia.
Having lit up Brazil in 2014, there had been concerns that Los Cafeteros were going to underwhelm this summer following a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Japan in their World Cup opener.
Thankfully, José Pékerman’s side responded in the most emphatic manner, sweeping aside a toothless Poland side 3-0 on Sunday night inside the Kazan Arena which bounced with South American joy.
The 2014 quarter-finalists were lifted immeasurably by James Rodríguez’s return to the starting line-up. The Golden Ball winner did not disappoint, producing a string of delightful moments which included two excellent assists for Yerry Mina and Radamel Falcao.
Rodríguez was not the only Colombian playmaker who thrilled in Kazan, however, as Juan Quintero continued his impressive start to the tournament, so much so that Monday’s transfer gossip has him pegged as a Real Madrid transfer target.
Quintero, deployed in the creative trident behind Falcao and alongside Rodríguez and the indefatigable Juan Cuadrado, caught the eye once more having scored a clever, under-the-wall free-kick against Japan.
The 25-year-old created Falcao’s goal with a defence-splitting reverse pass and was heavily involved up until he came off after 73 minutes.
With Quintero emerging as one of the World Cup’s attacking stars, we have taken a closer look at his career to this point and where it may go from here.
A career of ups and downs
Quintero has long been touted as one of the most gifted attacking midfielders to come out of South America in recent years.
His talent, however, has not always been matched by an appetite for self-improvement, the like of which has catapulted Rodríguez to the pinnacle of the club game.
Maybe now, on the grandest stage in Russia, Quintero will seize the opportunity to enhance his reputation and send scouts from European clubs into a frenzy, much like how Rodríguez with six goals at the 2014 World Cup.
While the next chapter in Quintero’s career is yet to be written, his journey to this point has been at once fascinating and frustrating.
Quintero moved to Pescara in Italy following a number of eye-catching performances for Atlético National in the 2012 Copa Libertadores. At the time, Quintero’s star was rising following an excellent showing at the South American Youth Championship, scoring five goals and notching four assists to scoop the tournament’s MVP award as Colombia clinched the title.
One of Quintero’s goals, a stunning 40-yard piledriver of a free-kick against Argentina, highlighted his penchant for the spectacular.
After one season with Pescara, Quintero moved to Porto, following in the footsteps of Falcao, Jackson Martínez and Rodríguez.
Quintero offered the club’s fans an exciting glimpse of his potential with a series of dazzling displays at the U20 World Cup in Turkey, scoring three goals as Colombia reached the round of 16 stage only to lose on penalties to South Korea.
‘Juanfer’ made an immediate impact at the Estádio do Dragão, scoring a minute after coming off the bench on his league debut with a ferocious left-footed drive. However, Quintero struggled to establish himself in the first-team under Paulo Fonseca, making most of his appearances from the bench.
It was largely the same story during the 2014/15 campaign, which prompted Porto to send Quintero on loan to Rennes the following season. His time in France, however, proved a fruitless venture and, following rumours that he was considering quitting football to pursue a career in music, Quintero moved back to Colombia for a spell with Independiente Medellín.
There, Quintero rediscovered a semblance of the form that had attracted those gushing eulogies before he joined Porto. Quintero scored 16 times for the Colombian side during 2017 but it was not enough to grant him a place in the Porto side, instead joining River Plate on a one-year loan in January 2018.
There, in the football heartland of Buenos Aires, Quintero continued his revival, his form convincing Pékerman to recall him to the Colombia squad for March’s friendly against France having not played a single minute in qualifying.
That night at the Stade de France effectively sealed Quintero’s place in the World Cup squad, smashing an emphatic penalty home two minutes after having replaced Rodríguez to complete a 3-2 comeback win.
Red-hot in Russia
Despite his resurgence, Quintero was expected to play a bit-part role for Colombia at this World Cup, much like in Brazil four years ago.
Rodríguez, who revived his own career at Bayern Munich last season having fallen out of favour under Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, remains Colombia’s creative talisman, with Quintero his mercurial understudy.
However, a calf injury sustained by Rodríguez in training opened the door for Quintero as he started in the No.10 role against Japan.
Things did not go to plan for Colombia, with Carlos Sánchez being sent off in the third minute, but Quintero still managed to make an impression, scoring Colombia’s goal with a Ronaldinho-esque free-kick cleverly rolled under Japan’s wall.
Rodríguez’s return to fitness coupled with Quintero’s promising performance created a selection headache for Pékerman. The Argentine coach favours a 4-2-3-1 formation, usually with Rodríguez in the No.10 role flanked by the pace of Cuadrado and either José Izquierdo or Luis Muriel.
Quintero, although blessed with a wonderful footballing imagination, is not as rapid as some of his teammates. However, with Colombia needing to win, Pékerman boldly started Rodríguez and Quintero together.
It paid off remarkably, with Colombia’s two most creative talents lighting up their thrilling win over Poland, helped in no small part by the gargantuan efforts of defensive midfielder Wilmar Barrios, who is enjoying an excellent tournament.
Rodríguez notched the assist for Mina’s opener but it was Quintero’s quick-thinking that made it possible, playing a delightfully disguised pass into his teammate’s path having drawn in Jacek Goralski by shaping up to shoot.
With 20 minutes remaining, Quintero’s last act was decisive, rolling a perfectly-measured into the path of Falcao, who cooly made it 2-0.
The defeat of Poland offered electrifying evidence that Quintero can still flourish at the highest level. He possesses a rare brand of creativity, relishing the chance to play a pass or take an option no other player would dare explore. Against Japan, he rolled his free-kick under the wall. Against Colombia, he slipped in Rodríguez when it looked for all the world that he was taking dead aim.
He is far from a model of consistency but Pékerman clearly likes the unpredictability Quintero brings. Moments after coming off the bench against Ivory Coast in 2014, Quintero spotted Boubacar Barry off his line and attempted to lob him from 50 yards. He nearly scored.
Quintero was withdrawn against Poland to a standing ovation, the gloom following the defeat to Japan having given way for optimism as to what Colombia can achieve in Russia.
There is still work to be done, of course. Colombia need to beat Senegal in order to reach the last-16 but the feeling is, that with Rodríguez and Quintero operating alongside each other, anything is possible.
Quintero was far from the finished product in 2014. He still has some way to go before he can be considered such, but Russia has provided a platform. For the sake of players who make the game enjoyable, we hope it’s just the start.