José Pékerman’s New Narrative With Colombia

Los Cafeteros’ Argentinian coach makes a triumphant return to the World Cup

José Pékerman, the Argentinian coach of the surging Colombia squad, was last at a World Cup in 2006. It didn’t end well.

He built his side around around one man: Juan Román Riquelme, who is known as El ultimo diez (the last number 10), and 2006 was supposed to be his, and Argentina’s, year. And it began well for Pékerman, Riquelme, et al. Argentina was probably the best team of the tournament up until the 72nd minute of the quarterfinal against Germany, the hosts. (Everyone remembers that exquisite goal against Serbia: a “Riquelman” 25–pass move that ended with Hernan Crespo back-heeling for an onrushing Esteban Cambiasso.)

But with Argentina up 1–0 with 18 minutes remaining at the Olympiastadion, Germany rallied and Pékerman lost his nerve—and with it, some say, Argentinian soccer’s soul. Riquelme was withdrawn for Cambiasso in a switch to a 4–4–2. The hope was to finish the game strong against a physical opponent, which was logical enough. But without Riquelme, Argentina lost its philosophical leader. It ceded possession and lost control. The image of a melancholic Román sauntering to the touchline to be replaced by a fervent Cambiasso, frantically pointing and screaming at his colleagues to reposition, held a wider significance for many in Argentina. Miroslav Klose equalised seven minutes after the change. The team never recovered and crashed out on penalties. Argentina had paid the price for not believing in itself. And Pékerman quit.

With the exception of two brief spells in Mexico (at Toluca and Tigres), Pékerman hardly worked since. Now his side have cruised into the last 16 and are the talk of the tournament. After failing to qualify for three straight World Cup finals, it is now the real deal. And so is its coach.

Pékerman was born to a Jewish family of Ukrainian descent and raised northeast of Buenos Aires. His playing career was cut short at 28 due to an injury, and he took to driving a taxi to support his family before turning to youth coaching. After years overseeing the youngsters back at his first club, Argentinos Juniors, he took the job of Argentina U-20 coach in 1994 and led them to three world titles over the next seven years. His progression to the senior national team was inevitable. It was all going so well until it all went so wrong.

Colombian Football Federation president, Luis Bedoya, still believed Pékerman had something to offer, however, and took a leap of faith in December 2011 after previous coach Lionel Alvarez had lasted less than 100 days. It paid off as Pékerman not only led Colombia back to the World Cup but oversaw the growth of a new, potentially golden generation and restored national pride.

Prior to its complete collapse at the 1994 World Cup that resulted in the tragic death of defender Andreas Escobar, Colombia arrived in the U.S. as arguably the world’s best international side. It was a passing team built around the mercurial Carlos Valderrama that possessed devastating pace on the counter attack with Faustino Asprilla and Freddy Rincon. Its prowess was emphatically displayed in the famous 5–0 victory against Argentina at the Monumental, the Albiceleste’s first home loss in a World Cup qualifier.

Since the 1990s, Colombian soccer had been in the dark. But now Pékerman has shown it the light. “He has regained the identity of Colombian football,” Valderrama has said. Pékerman likes his teams to press high and attack at pace, and upon his appointment he immediately assessed and addressed Colombia’s biggest problem: retaining possession. Playmaker Macnelly Torres appeared to give Colombia what it was missing: He would slow the tempo when necessary and encouraged those around him to circulate the ball. But Pékerman didn’t like that he joined Saudi club Al-Shabab and left him off the World Cup squad. In his absence, James Rodriguez has stepped into the playmaking role. A more contemporary 10 than both Torres and Riquelme, he sets the tone for this Colombia side, attacking with dynamism and pace—and providing the goals some thought they might struggle to find following Radamel Falcao’s injury.

“It is wonderful to have a team like this,” Pékerman said this week. He’s waited eight years for one. And this time he’s hoping to write a new World Cup story for himself—and for Colombia.