By Mike Collett-White
July 4 (Reuters) - Home fans may be in raptures but the neutrals are in mourning after Colombia, whose stunning soccer and winning smiles lit up the World Cup during their best ever run, were thwarted 2-1 by host nation Brazil in Friday's quarter-final.
A close range finish by Brazil captain Thiago Silva early on and a second-half thunderbolt from David Luiz put the home side 2-0 ahead, and playmaker James Rodriguez's 80th minute penalty in reply was not enough to salvage the game.
Rodriguez, the poster boy of the tournament for his attacking skill and boyish charm, was inconsolable after the game and he will not be alone.
The departing South Americans have provided some of the standout moments of the tournament, from Rodriguez's stunning volley in the 2-0 defeat of Uruguay to the team's catchy dance routine as the goals poured in.
Colombia swept aside Greece 3-0 in their opening Group C encounter, and were only really troubled in the next match, a narrow 2-1 defeat of Ivory Coast in Brasilia.
Then came a 4-1 thrashing of Japan in Cuiaba followed by Colombia's crowning achievement in Brazil, a comprehensive 2-0 win over Uruguay at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro where the final will be played on July 13.
Colombia did not qualify for the World Cup in 2002, 2006 and 2010, and had to make do without injured playmaker Radamel Falcao, whose absence some predicted would end their chances.
It made their achievement in Brazil all the more remarkable.
Colombia's passage through the last 16 was serene and included one of the goals of the tournament when Rodriguez chested a pass into the air and hit a left-foot volley that crashed in off the bar.
The moment of inspiration, a second goal and Friday's penalty put the 22-year-old ahead of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Thomas Mueller at the top of the goal-scoring chart with six, and cemented his place as the revelation of the World Cup.
"When one superstar is gone, another one has to step up. And that is Rodriguez," former Colombian great Carlos Valderrama said of his heir apparent.
DARK PAST, SHINING FUTURE
But 11 goals for and two against in their opening four matches underlined how Colombia were not only about the attacking flair of Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez.
Mario Yepes, aged 38 and with more than 100 caps to his name, used all his experience to lead the back line, and his crucial role was singled out by coach Jose Pekerman after the narrow win over Ivory Coast.
Pekerman himself has been instrumental to Colombia's renaissance, joining the team in the midst of the World Cup qualifiers and guiding them safely through.
The Argentine showed his human side in the game against Japan, bringing on veteran goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, who had just turned 43, with five minutes to go to make him the oldest player to appear at a World Cup.
The Colombia-dominated crowd erupted as Mondragon, wiping tears from his face, came on to the pitch, a moving image that reminded the watching world the tournament was not only about winning at all costs.
The South Americans' success in Brazil has been important back home, because it coincided with the 20th anniversary of the death of defender Andres Escobar, gunned down after scoring an own goal in the World Cup.
In one of the darkest chapters of football history, Escobar was shot outside a bar in Medellin on July 2, 1994, in apparent retribution for an own goal he scored days earlier hastening Colombia's exit from the World Cup in the United States.
His death was synonymous with a 1990s Colombia racked by violence and drug cartels, and fans have hailed the success of Rodriguez and his team as a sign of the nation's rebirth.
This year was the first time "Los Cafeteros", named after the coffee produced in Colombia, made it to the last eight, as the team finally fulfilled its potential after so many disappointing campaigns in the past. (Reporting by Mike Collett-White, Editing by Nigel Hunt)