Colombia's national soccer team coach Jose Pekerman walks on the pitch during a practice session at the team's training center in Cotia. Photo by Ivan Alvarado, Reuters
Minutes after Argentina fell to Germany, 4-2, in penalties (after a 1-1 draw in full time and extension) in a quarterfinals clash in Berlin during the 2006 World Cup, La Albiceleste head coach Jose Pekerman resigned.
Although he wasn’t pushed out by the Argentinean Football Association, Pekerman promised that his side would play seven matches, the total number of games played on the road to the finals. His team fell short in the quarterfinals and the coach deemed his tenure to be a failure.
Nevertheless, Pekerman would be scored for two curious moves he made that might have ultimately cost Argentina a chance to move on.
First, he removed playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme in the 76th minute in favor Esteban Cambiasso. Argentina had gone up, 1-nil, after Roberto Ayala scored in the 49th minute. With the game close to full time, Pekerman felt that he needed to hold his position rather than take the fight to Germany. It went for naught as Argentina’s offense sputtered and Miroslav Klose scored in the 86th minute to equalize.
Second, he kept Lionel Messi and Javier Zanetti on the bench. The two could have possibly sparked new life into Argentina’s attack and put the Germans on their heels. Instead, Pekerman sent in Inter Milan striker Julio Cruz who was eventually meted out a yellow card for a reckless challenge. His other substitution was used when he tabbed back up keeper Leo Franco to come in for starter Roberto Abbondanzieri who was accidentally kneed in the chest by Klose during a challenge in the 71st minute.
While no one blamed Pekerman, these moves were questioned. Furthermore, the post-match brawl between the two sides sullied Argentina’s image as they were deemed to be sore losers.
Pekerman then resurfaced in Mexico where he coached for three years in the Liga MX. But success was hard to find in Mexico and he was fired after the 2009 season. After a three-year sabbatical to recharge his batteries, he then moved back to his native South America to coach in Colombia.
Any mention of them is sure to bring back memories of its harrowing 1994 World Cup experience, never mind if they competed in the next staging at France where they dropped three slots back to 21st from a 19th place finish in the USA. There was the loss to the US that saw their 1994 campaign spiral out of control and ended with the murder of defender Andres Escobar presumably for his own goal that led to the loss to the Americans.
Colombia was a juggernaut as they demolished all competition on the road to the US. They were picked by many to compete if not win the World Cup. Instead, they sank to the bottom.
Now, Los Cafeteros, or the Coffeers, are back on football’s biggest stage after missing the last three World Cups.
And like Pekerman, they are out for redemption.
But not without an early bump on the road.
On the third of June, 2012, in Pekerman’s debut, Colombia squeaked past lowly Peru, 1-nil. It was an unacceptable result. To make matters worse, in their next qualification match, his side lost to Ecuador, 1-nil. The Argentinean was roundly scored for the loss. Before Pekerman took the job, Colombia were 1-1-1 in CONMEBOL qualifying. Maybe Los Cafeteros were better off with their former coach in Leonel Alvarez, the former national player and USA World Cup veteran, who was on the job for less than three months, said some critics.
However, after the loss to Ecuador, Colombia went on a 7-2-3 tear to finish second behind Argentina in the nine-team qualification round. They finished with 30 points to the 32 of Argentina. They also scored 27 goals for a plus-14 difference; once more second best behind La Albiceleste.
In pre-World Cup friendlies, they went 2-3-0. Clearly, they were playing much better.
In an interview with the FIFA website, said injured striker Radamel Falcao in the midst of their turnaround during the qualifications, “Without a doubt, Pekerman’s arrival turned things around for Colombia in terms of the team’s football, results, and confidence. He gave us the necessary belief to go out there with freedom o play the kind of football we are used to. That means trying to compete toe-to-toe whether home or away. We’ve become a more mature and balanced team.”
True enough, once in Brazil, they topped Group C with a 3-0-0 record defeating in order Greece, Ivory Coast, and Japan.
In the 4-1 win over Japan, Pekerman demonstrated that faith in his charges that Falcao gushed about when made eight changes to his starting eleven that defeated Ivory Coast five days earlier.
In the Round of 16, they sent Uruguay packing, 2-nil, and will face host Brazil on July 4 at Fortaleza.
All this without their top striker Falcao who is still out with an injury.
And now the excitement is back in Colombia. It is a feeling not felt in these parts since their ill-fated ’94 squad. Already, their quarterfinals finish is their best World Cup finish ever. From the looks of it though, they aren’t done.
Before Pekerman took over, Colombia was ranked 35th in the world by FIFA.
Before kick off at the World Cup, they were at a robust eighth spot.
There were three other CONMEBOL countries ahead of them – Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Without a doubt, after this World Cup, they will leap frog past Uruguay. Should they go deeper into the competition they could possibly face Pekerman’s native Argentina in the finals.
In this World Cup, we’ve seen countries redeem themselves from some previously telling loses. There’s the Netherlands’ opening day massacre of Spain and the United States’ 2-1 revenge over Ghana. There too have been the inspired showings of Mexico, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Chile to name a few.
But perhaps the best story of redemption is none other than Colombia’s. From the stories of drug cartel-backed football squads to assassinations to spectacular flops, although it still has to be played out this World Cup’s end, Los Cafeteros’ journey is one for the books.
Maybe the Colombians along with head coach, Pekerman, are due for a happy ending.