Colombia coach Jose Pekerman must decide whether father time has finally caught up with one the the nation's most revered stars.
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20 Oct 2013 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2014 - 4:59 PM

Life, and World Cup qualification, played a cruel trick on me. The first World Cups I was old enough to follow were in 1974 and 1978, when I was nine and 13 years of age.

And it was precisely these two that my native England missed, losing out in qualification to Poland and Italy respectively.

In 1982, though the road was bumpy, England did manage to make it to Spain, and I could at last savour the experience of watching my country in a World Cup.

It was intense, but by now I was 17, had discovered music, and there was a lot going on in political terms as well. So I didn’t live and breathe the competition in the same way as a younger version of myself would have done.

But there was someone much more unfortunate than myself – England centre-back Dave Watson.

He came to prominence relatively late, as a member of the Sunderland team that shocked Leeds United to win the 1973 FA Cup, and was nearly 28 when he made his international debut the following season.

For most of the next eight years his towering presence was a constant in the England backline, and he featured in most of the qualifiers as the team finally sealed its place in Spain.

But time was catching up with him. He would be almost 36 in the tournament. Could coach Ron Greenwood still trust him at the highest level?

It was a close run thing. Watson played in a friendly against Iceland on the eve of the World Cup - his last game for his country.

Greenwood wielded the axe. There was no room for sentiment, and no room for Dave Watson in the squad for Spain after 65 caps.

Perhaps Colombia coach Jose Pekerman is weighing up the pros and cons of a similar situation.

Only in his case the stakes are higher. He is forced not to dwell merely on the future of an important player, but on his team captain.

Four years ago, after Colombia narrowly missed out on World Cup qualification for the third consecutive time, I wrote an article regretting that Mario Yepes would never play in the tournament.

It seems that I wrote too soon. Yepes is still around. Indeed, he scored both goals midweek when Colombia concluded its successful campaign with a 2-1 win away to Paraguay.

For nearly a decade and a half, though, his most important contribution has come at the other end.

He has been a quite magnificent centre-back. Not always orthodox, Yepes goes to ground more than the coaching manual would advise. Yet his timing in the tackle has been so immaculate that it has rarely been a problem.

With his covering, his leadership and his left foot, Yepes has been a wonderful servant to the Colombian cause. When it won the 2001 Copa America, he was the outstanding member of a defensive unit that went through the competition without conceding a single goal.

But will the 2014 version of Mario Yepes be capable of hitting the same heights? There have to be doubts.

He will be 38 in January, and the signs of inevitable decline have been evident in the course of the current qualification campaign.

Round after round, Colombia was conceding very few goals but it always looked too good to be true, and the reality check arrived recently when, during the games against Uruguay and Chile, the ball was in the back of the Colombian net five times in the space of an hour.

The roof had long looked likely to cave in at some point. The side’s defending was not as good as the statistics had been making it appear, and part of that was down to the effects of the passing years on Yepes.

In an attempt to protect his lack of pace, the captain positions himself so deep that a hole can open up between the back line and the midfield.

And there is also the problem of picking up cards. He was booked seven times in 12 games during the qualifiers. In the 3-1 win away to Chile he effectively took himself off at half-time, pointing out to coach Pekerman that he was very close to being sent off.

This means that Pekerman is obliged to consider the possibility that his captain might miss a World Cup game through suspension. It is even possible that, over the course of the next few months, Pekerman’s thinking might go a little bit further.

The idea that Yepes, like Dave Watson in 1982, might be left out of the squad altogether is unthinkable. Unless he suffers an injury, Yepes will surely remain as the captain but it is just possible that his place in the starting line-up might come under threat.

Now that Colombia has made it to its first World Cup since 1998, opportunities crop up for a last-minute experiment.

Pekerman must surely be curious to have a look at a young centre-back shining in Argentina with River Plate – where, coincidentally, Yepes made great strides as a player over a decade ago.

Like Yepes, Eder Alvarez Balanta is left footed, and well capable of making a contribution in both penalty areas.

Quick, strong and classy, the 20 year-old has made a huge impression in the last few months. After a handful of games, club coach Ramon Diaz was already comparing him to Daniel Passarella – it is hard to think of higher praise for a River Plate defender.

When Dave Watson was replaced, the youngster who stepped in was Terry Butcher. Some had misgivings, but he went on to give assured performances in three World Cups.

Alavarez Balanta is a couple of years younger than Butcher was in 1982, and his game in inevitably still a bit raw but he has more natural talent.

Might his World Cup career start in 2014 at the expense of Mario Yepes? That would take a huge – and ruthless – decision from Jose Pekerman.