Professionals | 10/02/2019

FC Striker

The story of Jhon Cordoba

How Jhon Cordoba, the match-winner from the 4:1 win against St. Pauli, made it from a crisis region in Colombia to German professional football.

Every winter, between Christmas and New Year, Jhon Cordoba does something that the Foreign Office strongly discourages. He travels to Colombia, in the North West of the country, to the province of Choco. It is there, where the Foreign Office states on their website, that: “Abductions, robberies and other violent crimes right through to open struggles by criminal gangs are possible at any time”. Naturally, Jhon Cordoba knows that danger. The 1. FC Köln striker grew up with it. His home lies in Choco.

Jhon Cordoba comes from Istmina, a small town near the west coast of Colombia at a river-fork in the middle of the Pacific jungle. Sheds and houses made of unpainted brick with rust-red corrugated iron roofs line the shore. “The poverty is huge and it’s visible everywhere, but it’s still a lively town with happy people,” said Cordoba. The majority of the around 25,000 inhabitants are African-Colombian. Their ancestors were African slaves; who once laboured in the gold mines of Choco.

Guerrillas, militias, drug cartels

There are still huge gold deposits in Cordoba's home region, but mineral rights are owned by large corporations - and the illegal gold mining is controlled by left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing militia and the drug cartels. Colombia is a land, in which after more than a half-century of civil war, that is still sees the rule of the strongest applied today.

Armed clashes between guerrillas, paramilitaries, the state and later on drug cartels have cost at least 220,000 lives since the mid-1960s. Choco belongs to one of the most hard-hit regions during the conflict. Although the Colombian government and the largest rebel group, the Farc signed a peace agreement in 2016, other guerrillas and organised crime groups are now entering the power vacuum.

“We always had something to eat”

In terms of the violence and criminality in his homeland, Jhon Cordoba does not want to say much. Only: “I still have relatives in Istmina. In comparison to other locations in the region of Choco, it’s quite safe there.” Jhon Cordoba was born there in 1993 and grew up as the third of five children. His mother looked after him and his siblings, while his father made a career in the Colombian league in the 1980s and 90s, even making the leap to the national team. He was not rich, but earned enough to keep the family going. “I have grown up in modest circumstances, without luxury. But we always had enough to eat,” said Cordoba.

He spent his childhood with the ball at his feet. “We played football every day, barefoot on the dusty roads. From the gravel, I often had grazes.” Normally, Jhon and the kids from his area played at the nearby hospital. The car park for the ambulances was secured by a huge fence, that the kids used as a goal. At seven years of age, Jhon joined his local football school. He dreamt of being a professional footballer one day. Over time, it became clear that he had to leave the depths of the rainforest in Istmina.

A teacher made contact with Envigado FC, a team that is well-known for their superb youth work. None other than James Rodriguez, currently at FC Bayern, was coached at Envigado. Jhon is over the moon, but his mother doesn’t want to let go of her 12-year-old son. Envigado lies on the edge of Medellin. Medellin is a completely different world. The metropolis that is home to over a million people requires a 12-hour journey by car. Over the dirt roads, through the jungle. The Cordobas are also without a car at the time.

“My mother was worried for me”

And it isn’t just the distance that his mother is worried about, but also the safety of the area. Medllin is notorious as a drug stronghold, and in the 1990s it wasn’t just down to the high number of homicides that it was known as the most dangerous city in the world. “My mum was worried that something could have happened,” added Jhon. “I didn’t have any concerns. I wanted to continue my dream.” He remained focused. At the age of 15, his mum let him go.

Jhon lived with the family of a cousin and coped well. “I had my dream in front of me and did everything I could to make it happen.” At the age of 17, he was brought into the first team at Envigado. Three months later, on 8th October 2010, he made his first appearance in the Colombian league. The date of his debut is tattooed onto the inside of his arm with a cross.

“That I was able to make my dream of playing professional football come true, I have to thank God and his help and my own personal desire,” he said. He still celebrates his goals in the same way, by pointing both index fingers in the direction of the sky – like on Friday, during his hat-trick against FC St. Pauli.

During his second professional season, he fell into the interest of Mexican first division club, Chiapas FC. In fact, they were looking at one of his team-mates, defender, Leiton Jimenez. He had caught their interest. But a certain young, determined striker by the name of Jhon Cordoba scored two goals that day and impressed the scouts just as much: “They signed us both in the same week.”

But in Mexico, living alone didn’t go as smoothly as they had done in Medellin for the 19-year-old. “At that point in time, I’d never left Colombia before. For me it was difficult, I missed my family and my performances suffered as a result.”

Move to Espanyol

Cordoba managed to play himself into the Colombian under-20 side. With them, he was crowned South American champion at the beginning at 2013, and scored four goals in the tournament. In the following summer, at the under-20 World Cup in Turkey, Colombia went out in the round of 16 on penalties to South Korea. Still, Cordoba scored twice in four games and his reputation continued to grow in front of the international scouts. La Liga side, Espanyol loaned him out for a year.

The step to Spain, in footballing and geographical terms, was much bigger than from Colombia to Mexico. But in Barcelona, after a few weeks of getting bedded in, he began to get more playing time, regularly as a substitute. At the end of his first season, 28 games and four goals were in the book. After the end of his loan, Cordoba remained in Spain. Espanyol’s fellow La Liga side, Granada signed him. He was also a regular off the bench for Granada, scoring four times in 26 games.

The following summer, the new season was already underway and 1. FSV Mainz 05 were looking for reinforcements up front. Jhon Cordoba fit exactly what they wanted. Mainz agreed on a loan with the option to buy with Granada. In the first months in Mainz, Cordoba was plagued by muscle problems and adductor issues. But in the Rückrunde, he got his chance to shine. In the last 13 games of the 2015-16 season, he scored five goals and made two assists. He helped Mainz to an impressive sixth place and Europa League qualification.

“It worked well,” said Cordoba on his time in Mainz. Logical consequence: the 05ers used their option to buy and signed him permanently. Cordoba also put in a solid shift in his second year, and then made the move to 1. FC Köln in the summer of 2017.

The sceptics are proven wrong

In his first year at FC, things couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. An instinctive 30-yard lob sent 20,000 travelling fans wild against Arsenal. Unfortunately, after that, injury problems took their toll. He had to endure plenty of critics, and whistles from sections of the fans.

Jhon Cordoba never complained. He let his actions do the talking. This season, he’s been in superb form and rediscovered his confidence. His spectacular playstyle and tireless efforts have helped him to score 10 goals to become a true fan favourite. The sceptics are also convinced of his performances. It’s not the first tough situation, which Jhon Cordoba has overcome.

This text first appeared in a similar form in GeißbockEcho.

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