After building formidable Argentina youth setup, Jose Pekerman has revived Colombia
Jose Pekerman continues to break records as Colombia head coach. His six years at the helm represent the longest continuous reign in national team history. In Russia, he has become the first coach to lead them to consecutive knockout-phase qualifications. In Brazil four years ago, he steered them to the quarterfinals -- their best ever showing at a World Cup.
Indeed, like opponents England, Colombia will look beyond their round-of-16 tie in Moscow on Tuesday and see a relatively accessible route to the final four -- another potential record in the making.
Such heights seemed far away in the years immediately after Pekerman's playing career came to an end. At 28, injuries forced him to retire. With a young family to support, he worked as a taxi driver in Buenos Aires. At lunchtime, he would park up wherever he saw kids playing football, get out his packed lunch and watch while he ate.
Pekerman knew he still wanted to be involved in the game, and he soon embarked on a coaching course. A former teammate then offered him the chance to join his staff. He followed him through positions at three different clubs, eventually settling down at Argentinos Juniors, the team he had represented as a player. He spent 10 years there in charge of youth recruitment and development.
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In 1994, he applied for the vacant position as head of Argentina's youth national teams. There were more high-profile candidates, but the project Pekerman put forward won him the role. He conceived of the youth national teams as an opportunity to instill in the country's most exportable young players a short-passing, classically Argentinian style of football, while also giving them a feeling of what it meant to represent their homeland.
It was a success both in terms of trophies and in providing a supply line of footballers for the senior squad. Argentina won three Under-20 World Cups under Pekerman's direct watch, and another two after he was promoted to become the senior national team coach. He left that position after Argentina, having produced some spellbinding football, were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage of the 2006 World Cup on penalties to hosts Germany.
In 2012, Colombia came calling. They were in a difficult spot. Two coaches had come and gone since their failed attempt to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, and they needed some direction and stability. It was a hard decision to again turn to a foreigner, an Argentinian, after nearly three decades of native coaches, but results soon justified the choice.
Pekerman not only successfully steered Colombia to their first World Cup qualification since 1998 but took them all the way to the last eight, where they narrowly lost out to hosts Brazil. A second successive qualification was sealed in solid if admittedly largely unimpressive style, but in Russia, his team have bounced back well from defeat to Japan in their opener to progress to the knockout stages on the back of wins over Poland and Senegal.
Like any of his sides, Colombia are well balanced. His teams are often asymmetrical, but the balance between attack and defence is always maintained. Against Poland, for example, with Juan Quintero and James Rodriguez close together in central areas, left-back Johan Mojica was given the freedom of the flank. The left-sided central midfielder held a deeper, set position to provide equilibrium. In the second half against Senegal, a series of small adjustments allowed Luis Muriel to tuck in to support Radamel Falcao up front.
In his 77 matches at the helm, Colombia have only lost by more than a single goal on four occasions. If his obsession with balance can sometimes lead to conservative choices of substitutions, it is difficult to dismiss an approach that generally provides his best players with the necessary supporting structure to produce attractive football.
The way Pekerman relates to his players is a function of his personality. He is a humble and quiet man, who chooses his words wisely and places great value in loyalty. Quintero did not play a single competitive match for Colombia between Brazil 2014 and his start against Japan at this World Cup. His career drifted before finally finding focus in recent months. But Pekerman remained in contact with him throughout, keeping tabs on a player he still considered part of the national team. "He is like a football father," Quintero said recently.
The 68-year-old's time in charge of Colombia could well come to an end after this World Cup. It is, though, difficult to see him retiring just yet. He has not yet fallen out of love with the game nor its primary interpreters: the players. After Quintero had provided the inch-perfect through-ball that released Falcao to score against Poland, Pekerman called him over to the touchline. "Juan! You are a crack," he told him.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.