Mario Yepes, Colombia’s Grand Old Man

The 38-year-old Cafeteros captain persevered through the national team’s dry spell but now leads a new golden generation

Mario Yepes watched the 1994 World Cup like most of the rest of us, on television. He had just completed his first professional season, helping second division Cortulua gain promotion to the Colombian top flight. He was a striker then, but new manager Reynaldo Rueda had other ideas. Yepes would be converted to center back, to play as a libero. He was big, fluid, and rangy, but never fast, even before he became slow, never the brand of Colombian burner that has set this tournament alight.

Twenty years later, as Yepes—center back, captain, “Jack Sparrow” lookalike—leads his fellow Cafeteros onto the field in Fortaleza for their quarterfinal match with Brazil on Friday, the decision has never looked wiser. The 38-year-old reigns as the undisputed boss of Colombia’s backline, snuffing out the rare threat as teammates James Rodríguez, Jackson Martinez, and Teo Gutierrez dazzle starry-eyed supporters with their choreographed chaos.

The road to this long-Promised Land has been fraught and uncertain. Long at risk of assuming the role of a footballing Moses—the man who quietly shepherded the national team forward as it emerged from the psychic bondage of the Cali and Medellin drug wars, but never himself to taste today’s milk and honey—he persevered. Last week, he told journalists he had “realized a goal that left by the wayside many of the players who fought beside me, who have not been able to accompany me here.”

The dreams of the “golden generation” were already turning into a nightmare as the Colombian team walked onto the field at the Rose Bowl on June 22, 1994. The manager and some number of players were under threat from the same drug cartels that had made the domestic league a goldmine—“narco-soccer,” as they described it in the heartbreaking ESPN documentary “The Two Escobars.

Six days later, Andres Escobar, whose own goal in the 35th minute had given the Americans a 1–0 lead, was dead, shot outside a nightclub in Medellin, where he lived and played his club football. His colleagues scattered, mostly to France, where Carlos Valderrama had played earlier in his career. To this day, Colombian footballers who move to Europe tend to begin their adventures in the Italian and French leagues. Three of Saturday’s starters are on Ligue 1 payrolls. Yepes and midfielder Carlos Sanchez Moreno, who made 178 appearances for Valenciennes, enjoyed long stretches there. When the injured star Radamel Falcao wanted a step up from Porto last year, he chose French moneybags AS Monaco as his destination. Yepes enjoyed the best years of his long career with Nantes and Paris Saint-Germain, before it was saturated in cash. He won the Coupe de France with PSG in 2006, shutting down Marseille’s young star Franck Ribery.

“We play offensive football,” Yepes says of the current Colombian squad, the last one he will lead. “We are an open team, and when we play like that it is the defenders who suffer the most. But we are prepared for it.”

In the first knockout stage, he led the Cafeteros in successful tackles. Matched up against Uruguay’s Diego Forlan, another player who has aged well and kept his hair in the finest form, Yepes was nearly perfect. Colombia breezed to a 2–0 win, thanks to AS Monaco’s James scoring a brace.

Andres Escobar should be 47 years old now, with his own memories of AC Milan, where he was reportedly poised to move after the 1994 World Cup. Instead, though, it is Yepes, a bit younger, but with the career, the Milan memories (he played there from 2010–13), and the riches, in life and football, that Escobar was so cruelly denied. Carlos Valderrama, having taken over from his fallen teammate as national team captain, retired from the international game after swapping shirts with David Beckham as Colombia was eliminated from the 1998 World Cup. Sixteen years would pass, a lifetime in this ruthless game, before his countrymen would return to the grand stage.

Yepes made his international debut a year after “El Pibe” exited. He earned his 100th cap on June 19 in Brasilia, playing all 90 minutes as Colombia shredded Ivory Coast in its second group game. By late afternoon Friday, on the occasion of his 102nd appearance, he will have surpassed Leonel Alvarez for second all-time behind Valderrama (111), and, with less good fortune than most oddsmakers seem to believe necessary, a place in the semifinal of this “Cup of Cups.”