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Soccer

A much rosier outcome for Colombia than 1994

Colombia beats Paraguay, 2-1
Paraguay’s Oscar Romero, left, and Colombia’s Farid Diaz vie for the ball during the Copa America Centenario match at the Rose Bowl on June 7.
(Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images)

Colombia came to the Rose Bowl not to bury ghosts but simply to beat Paraguay. It came not to erase its past but to enhance its future.

And it accomplished that Tuesday, with a goal and an assist from surprise starter James Rodriguez lifting Colombia to a 2-1 victory that made it the first team to qualify for the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario.

But that’s not all that was significant about Tuesday’s game, because the victory came on the same field where the darkest chapter in Colombian soccer history was written a generation ago.

In a group-play game in the 1994 World Cup, defender Andres Escobar scored an own goal for the U.S., knocking Colombia — among the pre-tournament favorites — out of the competition. Ten days later, Escobar was slain in the parking lot of a Medellin bar, shot six times by gunmen who taunted him by shouting “Gooool.”

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The murder was eventually pinned on the leaders of a drug cartel who had helped fund the country’s rise to soccer prominence. When they bet heavily on the national team’s success in the World Cup and lost, Escobar was made to pay.

Colombia returned to the Rose Bowl on Tuesday for the first time since that game. And it was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of 42,766, most dressed in the bright yellow jersey of the national team, leaving the stadium’s grandstands looking like a massive field of sunflowers.

Colombian soccer has also returned to the prominence it enjoyed in Escobar’s time, reaching the quarterfinals of the last three Copa Americas as well as the 2014 World Cup.

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And although Coach Jose Pekerman has begun remaking his roster since 2014, leaving 16 players from the World Cup squad off his Centenario team, two dominant wins in five days have established Colombia, ranked third in the world by FIFA, as a strong contender for the tournament title.

“We got the result we were looking for,” Pekerman said in Spanish. “We have confidence in what we’re doing.”

Two of the players who made Pekerman’s cut were Rodriguez, a midfielder  who led the World Cup in goals two years ago, and striker Carlos Bacca,  whose 18 scores were third-best in Italy’s Serie A this season.

Rodriguez, who wasn’t expected to play against Paraguay after injuring a shoulder in the Copa opener last week, played 90 minutes and contributed to both Colombia goals.

On the first one, in the 12th minute, he bent a perfect corner kick to the edge of the six-yard box for Bacca, who leaped between two defenders to head it in.

Then Rodriguez, who won a Champions League crown with Real Madrid 11 days ago, handled the second one himself, driving a low, left-footed shot across the front of the goal and into the netting at the far side for his second score of the tournament.

“We had a great first half, and Paraguay had a great second half,” Pekerman said.

Paraguay pulled one of those goals back in the 71st minute on Victor Ayala’s right-footed strike from about 30 yards. Colombian keeper David Ospina had no chance on the shot, which sailed over his head and dropped just under the crossbar at the far post.

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But Paraguay’s comeback stalled minutes later when midfielder Oscar Romero was shown his second yellow card of the game and sent to the dressing room, leaving his team a man down — and leaving Paraguay needing a win over the U.S. on Saturday in Philadelphia to have any chance to advancing out of group play.

“They have a great team and great coach,” Paraguay Coach Ramon Diaz said of Colombia. “Along with Argentina, I think they are the clear favorites.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11


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