'They deserve what they are living." In a week in which a country was reminded of the fragility of life, these are the words of Jose Pekerman, the Colombia coach and the man behind their carnival march to the last eight of a World Cup for the first time.

His side take on Brazil today, and President Juan Manuel Santos has given all public service workers the afternoon off. In the barrios, the cafeterias and the plazas of Bogota, they will be watching, singing and cheering. On Wednesday, though, they were a little quieter.

It was the 20th anniversary of the death of Andres Escobar, the footballer whose funeral brought more than a hundred thousand into the streets, throwing flowers as his coffin rolled past. His family will be at the match this evening in Fortaleza, invited by FIFA in a rare show of humanity.

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Escobar was a defender, a starter in the great Colombia side of the 1994 World Cup - a team with Tino Asprilla, Freddy Rincon and the flamboyant playmaker Carlos Valderrama, though goalkeeper Rene Higuita was in jail for cartel-related kidnapping offences. This golden generation had just thrashed Diego Maradona's Argentina 5-0 in qualifying and were coming into the World Cup fancied by many.

Instead, Escobar was murdered a month before his wedding day, before he married his girlfriend of five years. Her name was Pamela Cascardo. She was a dentist.

The 27-year-old had scored an own goal five days earlier, a horrible sliding, awkward touch on a cross from John Harkes which became the USA's winner and sent Colombia out after the group stage. It was reported that the country's drug lords had lost a fortune gambling on the result. "We had received notes warning us what would happen if we played badly," admits Rincon.

After the World Cup, Escobar travelled home to a country whose already dark mood had turned black. "He said, 'I am not going to hide because I have done nothing wrong'," his fiancée recalled.

In the El Poblado neighbourhood of Medellin he went to a nightclub, and later, alone in the car park, three men appeared. They argued with him. Humberto Castro Munoz, a bodyguard with connections to a powerful Colombian cartel, pulled out a handgun and, according to witnesses, shouted 'Gol!' in the manner of a television commentator and shot him six times. He was sentenced to 43 years in jail; he was released after 11.

Escobar was writing a newspaper column during the World Cup. His last entry, after elimination, read: "Life doesn't end here. We have to go on. Life cannot end here. Let us please maintain respect. We'll see each other again because life doesn't end here."

He has become a symbol shining against the nation's ugly past, its lawlessness and shame. In Argentina, they revere the No.10 shirt. In Colombia the No.2 is sacred, the one currently worn by Cristian Zapata of AC Milan. "We will never stop thinking about [Andres] or feeling that he is one of our own," said Jorge Bermudez, the defender who was a team-mate. "Every Colombia triumph will also be, in some way, his."

Now, 20 years on, there is such a triumph in the making. The contrast is striking. This time, the group stage was negotiated with almost careless ease, nine goals in three matches followed by the shrugging off of a gritty Uruguay in the last 16. Next up: the hosts. Colombia are underdogs, as anyone would be, but not greatly so; the nation is afire with pride and expectation.

"They have the jogo bonito that eludes Brazil," writes an exultant Pablo Romero of the Bogata broadsheet El Tiempo. "It is the yellow of Colombia that shines!" Another editorial reads simply: "Brazil is attackable."

On social networks, a popular campaign - doomed to fail, no doubt - is calling for Pekerman to be fast-tracked from head coach straight to President. There is confidence coursing the country. "Sure, Neymar is a great player," says Carlos Valdes, the defender, of Brazil's talisman. "The most important thing, though, is the block, the team."

They are bullish, and why not? Colombia have been the best side in Brazil, the most consistent, dynamic, the most joyful. They line up with the scorer of the goal of the tournament and its breakout star. "We have James Rodriguez," Valdes adds, with a grin.

Diego Ospina, the goalkeeper, has been excellent. Juan Camilo Zuniga and Pablo Armero burst down either flank, while the likes of Jackson Martinez - who has barged his way into the team - Teofilo Guttierez, Carlos Bacca and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado switch positions and exchange darting passes. Then there is Rodriguez. "He is a phenomenon," says Cuadrado, simply.

The favourites against the dark horses. The hosts and the neighbours. Yellow versus yellow. Revenge? They still whisper, in Cali and Medillin and Barranquilla, about the curse of Pele. Supporters begged the Brazilian not to tag them this time as tournament favourites. Pele predicted they would win the World Cup in 1994. They did not. They lost, and a defender lost his life.

Colombia was in mourning again, this year, when it bid farewell to its greatest son. In the otherworldly towns and villages brought to life vividly in the literature of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the fantastical blends with reality. They say, though, that the revered novelist did not invent new worlds, but instead revealed the magic in this one.

You suspect he would be pleased by this team. Football, at last, is a source of pride.