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Soccer-'Yellow fever' grips Colombia ahead of Uruguay game

Reuters

* Colombians delighted as team makes waves in Brazil

* First time their nation is at World Cup in 16 years

* Nerves and optimism ahead of Saturday's game v Uruguay

By Julia Symmes Cobb

BOGOTA, June 27 (Reuters) - Long-suffering Colombians are shirking work, carousing in the streets and painting the nation yellow after a World Cup start that has exceeded all expectations and left them on edge ahead of Saturday's knockout game.

Devoted yet oft-disappointed supporters, whose team are competing at the finals for the first time in 16 years, have been dropping everything to watch the team score goal after goal in the run-up to the last-16 clash with Uruguay.

In the capital Bogota, the swanky Parque 93 exploded into a raucous display of so-called 'yellow fever', named for the team's sunshine-coloured shirts, as favourite James Rodriguez scored the final goal in a 4-1 win against Japan on Tuesday.

It was Colombia's third straight win and gave them top spot in Group C.

The upper-crust park, usually a hangout for rich revelers enjoying cocktails and nannies watching children swing on a jungle gym, seethes at every match with fans who dance and honk vuvuzelas as they snap "selfie" photos by a big screen TV.

Even police and firefighters charged with controlling the crowd join the party, turning a blind eye to rowdy fans throwing flour and spraying foam, as they hug and cheer "Viva Colombia!"

"What a great team we have," said Maribel Castano as friends jumped up and down watching the Japan game, blasting on red, yellow and blue striped horns and raising their arms in triumph.

During games, traffic comes to a halt and office workers abandon their desks to gather around televisions. Few worked on Tuesday, leaving phones and emails unanswered.

"FOOTBALL MOVES MOUNTAINS"

Soccer success is a welcome relief after a bitter presidential election split the nation over peace talks with Marxist rebels. President Juan Manuel Santos was re-elected.

"Football breaks down barriers, moves mountains, and it's inspiring the optimism of Colombians, we're really doing a very positive job in Brazil, and that makes us proud," said Santos, congratulating coach Jose Pekerman's team.

Progress at the tournament, the first time Colombia have won all their group games, is a vindication for Argentine Pekerman, who was scorned when he took over the reins two years ago but is now affectionately called 'Profe' or 'Professor'.

Colombia qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1998 in October, before suffering a harsh blow when leading striker Radamel Falcao was injured.

It is not only 16 years of thwarted Cup ambitions which hang over the team - a player lost his life for his performance at the 1994 tournament.

Twenty years ago, captain Andres Escobar, just back from the World Cup in the United States, was gunned down in Medellin - supposedly because his own goal cost Colombia their chance to move ahead.

But for most, the focus is now on the future, as they apprehensively measure the team's chances on Saturday.

"Uruguay will be complicated," said 21-year-old student Pedro Gonzalez, covered in celebratory flour and foam.

"I'm totally excited, there's a deep sense of patriotism - it doesn't matter if you're black, white, short, whatever - Colombia is behind them," he added, as a bright yellow Mini Cooper glided past, an ecstatic passenger waving a flag out of the sunroof.

Fans are delighted Uruguay's best player Luis Suarez will not play in Saturday's game, after being banned by soccer's world governing body FIFA for biting an opponent. Many think his absence will improve Colombia's chances.

Others lamented one controversial Colombian rule of the game - a ban on alcohol sales. The so-called 'dry law' aims to cut post-match violence and drunk driving.

"Shame about the dry law," said Christian Garcia, 23, in between blows on his vuvuzela, "We're together as a country." (Additional reporting by Camilo Cohecha; Editing by Helen Murphy and Andrew Cawthorne)

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