BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — There is one important question in the minds of Colombian fans as the nation prepares for its first World Cup in 16 years: Will Radamel Falcao be ready to play?
Colombia's hopes for a successful World Cup are largely dependent on whether the striker can recover in time from a knee injury that has kept him on the sidelines since January.
If he heals, Colombia could easily be one of the surprise teams of the tournament; If he is ruled out, those prospects diminish significantly.
The prolific goal scorer, nicknamed "El Tigre," was ranked among the "Must Watch" players of the World Cup until he sustained the ligament damage in his left knee. The 28-year-old striker, who joined Monaco from Atletico Madrid, was hurt in a heavy challenge during a French Cup match against amateur side Chasselay on Jan. 22.
Falcao had surgery three days later and immediately began the recovery process, with daily physiotherapy sessions and exercise.
The surgeon initially said there was a 50-50 chance Falcao would recover in time to play in Brazil. But Monaco later reported Falcao had successfully completed the first phase of his recovery, and the player himself has been optimistic about his prospects.
"I've been feeling really well," Falcao told Monaco TV. "It's been spectacular how the knee has been improving. Each day I can do more and that speaks well of the recovery process. Hopefully I can fully recover and play in the World Cup."
Falcao's nine goals played an integral part in Colombia cruising through South American qualifying to earn its first World Cup spot since 1998, finishing second behind Argentina in the nine-team standings.
Colombia subsequently was seeded for the World Cup draw, landed in Group C along with Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan, and had high expectations of advancing to the knockout stage.
"When we finished qualifying on such a high note we never imagined that we would have to deal with so many setbacks," Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said of injuries to Falcao and other players.
Pekerman, who is from Argentina, tried to quantify how important the striker was to the team's chances.
"Colombia has to play for Falcao just like Argentina has to play for (Lionel) Messi," he said.
In its first match without the striker, Colombia was held to a 1-1 draw with Tunisia in a friendly in Barcelona in March.
In the event of Falcao's absence, more responsibility for Colombia's attack will rest on 22-year-old James Rodriguez, who successfully took over the scoring role at Monaco.
The defensive unit is solid. Led by 38-year-old Mario Yepes, who has made more than 100 international appearances, Colombia allowed only 13 goals in 16 matches to have the best record in South American qualifying.