In the end, it was a simple question of time. For striker Radamel Falcao, there just wasn't enough. Manager Jose Pekerman finally axed his star from Colombia's 23-player list last night, calling it the "saddest day" since he took charge of the national team.
Defender Luis Amaranto Perea and striker Luis Muriel were also discarded from the Colombia squad. The team that flew to Argentina for their last-minute World Cup preparations also left behind Macnelly Torres, Aquivaldo Mosquera, Elkin Soto and Edwin Valencia. Those four, along with Perea, Muriel and Falcao, are the Colombian players who will watch this summer's action from the sidelines.
But it was the news of Colombia's biggest name, Radamel Falcao Garcia, that stung the most. At 28 years old, El Tigre was in his prime. After a sensational qualifying campaign in which he bagged nine goals -- a third of his country's total -- the stage seemed set for the Santa Marta-born forward to lay his name down in history.
Alas, it wasn't to be. A clumsy crunching challenge from French amateur player Soner Ertek in January brought the curtain crashing down on the Monaco frontman's season. Neither the best doctors in the world nor the Colombia marksman's fervent commitment to God could help him beat the clock before the dawn of Colombia's biggest match in 16 years -- when they play Greece on June 14 for their World Cup opener.
It was with great sadness and reluctance that Falcao accepted that time was his biggest enemy. But the grace with which he announced his non-participation won him both sympathy and respect.
"I'm still not ready," Falcao said at a press conference in Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires. "And I didn't want to take a place away from one of my teammates who is 100 percent."
Such humility might attract admiration, but there's no hiding the fact that his absence deals a devastating blow to Pekerman's World Cup plans. After years of under-performing for his country, Falcao had blossomed under the Argentine's watch. It's remarkable to consider now, but when the qualifiers started, previous manager Leonel Alvarez left the then Atletico Madrid striker on the bench. With Pekerman's shrewd guidance, however, Falcao soon became tied for Colombia's second all-time goalscorer.
Seemingly the whole country waited with bated breath after a tweet from the Colombian Football Federation announced a press conference later the same day. But as time crept up on the big announcement, news spilled out from social media that Falcao would be joining Pekerman to reveal the final 23-man squad. It was an ominous sign.
At around 5.20 p.m. Colombian time, the fears of 47 million Colombians were confirmed. Silently, the nation was already prepared.
Falcao's chances of making a rapid recovery were extremely slim from the time he suffered his cruciate knee injury on Jan. 22. Returning from a serious injury two months ahead of schedule was not only asking the almost impossible but also risking jeopardizing Falcao's career. For coach and player, the decision was inevitable. It was time to look forward, and discussion within the country soon turned to the players likely to fill the injured star's boots. In Saturday's 2-2 draw with Senegal, strikers Carlos Bacca and Teo Gutierrez both showed signs of life after El Tigre by netting a goal each. They are now favourites to line up as Colombia's first choice front pair this summer, but with Porto's hotshot forward Jackson Martinez and Adrian Ramos -- scorer of 16 goals in the Bundesliga this past season -- Pekerman has plenty of other potent options.
That said, one friendly against modest opposition is a slightly flimsy and rather premature measure by which to judge how well Colombia's reserve goal supply might fare in Brazil. It also ignores the two-year process through which Pekerman constructed a system that sought to get the best out of Falcao. Swapping one striker for another isn't quite that simple.
Neither Bacca, Martinez nor Ramos scored a single goal in the qualifying rounds. While they were only used intermittently, this still leaves Pekerman with little time to reconstruct his system and find a balanced and fluid approach similar to the one used so successfully on Colombia's road to Brazil.
While Falcao probably has one last World Cup in him, Luis Amaranto Perea's international career is now probably over. The defender -- an ice cream vendor before becoming a professional footballer -- was left out of the side due to "strictly medical reasons." At 35 years old, he has surely picked up the last of his 77 international appearances.
Perea called Monday night "the hardest press conference of his life," with former U20 striker Muriel remaining more optimistic in recognizing that time is still on his side. The 23-year-old was ever present in Pekerman's qualifying squads, but a distinctly average season for Italian club side Udinese was probably his undoing. "Right now my dream remains unfulfilled," Muriel said. "But I still have my career in front of me."
Pekerman's side next faces Jordan on Friday in Buenos Aires, with hope that a morale-boosting win will sweep aside the anguish and misfortune that has left a monumental dent in Colombia's World Cup plans.
Hope still remains, and with the wily Pekerman in charge, Colombia should still be favourites to qualify from Group C into the knockout round. But for football in general, the 2014 World Cup will a poorer tournament without the roar of the man they call El Tigre.