Teofilo Gutierrez faced two challenges before the World Cup started: try and make Colombia forget the absence of Radamel Falcao and break the curse of the number nine. The combustible striker, who is likely to lead the attack against the Ivory Coast on Thursday, has already overcome one of those by becoming the first player wearing the Colombia number nine shirt to score a goal at a World Cup finals. Although number nine is traditionally worn by the first-choice striker in South American football, it has been anything but synonymous with goals as far as Colombia are concerned.
Jaime Silva wore the shirt on Colombia's World Cup debut in 1962, but failed to hit the target. Next up was Miguel Herrera who did not even get on to the pitch when Colombia returned to the stage 28 years later. Four years on, the shirt was awarded to Ivan Valenciano, known as El Gordo (the Fat One), who played only 45 minutes in their unhappy campaign and also drew a blank. In 1998 it was Adolfo Valencia's turn but, even though the striker known as "The Train" had scored twice in 1994 wearing number 11, he misfired as Colombia managed only one goal in three games. Although Gutierrez has lived in Falcao's shadow, he was almost as effective in the World Cup qualifying campaign, scoring six goals compared to the talismanic striker's nine.
Since Falcao's injury, coach Jose Pekerman has preferred him to Porto's Jackson Martinez and Sevilla's Carlos Bacca, although with Colombia's wealth of attacking options he cannot afford to have an off day. Now playing for Argentina's River Plate, he has a volatile personality that led him to walk out on teams in Turkey, Argentina and Mexico. The 29-year-old first left the warmth of his home city of Barranquilla, a steamy port on the Caribbean coast, for Trabzonspor in 2010. But after a year in which he struggled to settle in Turkey, Gutierrez went home without permission and the club decided to accept an offer from Argentina's Racing. He was an instant hit with Racing's fans but fell out with his team mates, brandishing a paintball gun at them in the changing room after one game and prompting another departure.
He eventually ended up at Mexico's Cruz Azul, where he engineered what became a protracted and unpopular escape after River Plate showed interest. Colombia fans will hope that he can shun that impetuous streak, at least for the duration of the tournament. He certainly seems to have calmed down since his move to River. "The truth is that you have to leave your heart and soul on the pitch," Gutierrez told Colombian media after the 3-0 win over Greece. "Like any scorer or any forward, I always want to score. That is the reward for work and humility."