World Cup 2014: Jose Pekerman keeps cool as Colombia rocket up the popularity charts

 

It would be easy enough, at Colombia’s first World Cup finals since 1998, with their best generation of players for 20 years, to get carried away. With their tens of thousands of travelling fans, their joyous football and gleeful, dancing celebrations, Colombia have been one of the brightest attractions of the first week of the World Cup, and will continue to be so on into the knockout rounds.

But coach Jose Pekerman, the 64-year-old Argentine who has presided over the transformation of Colombia’s fortunes, is staying level-headed, even after the 2-1 win over Ivory Coast on Thursday, combined with Japan’s draw with Greece, sealed qualification for the last 16 and, probably, top spot in Group C.

“We still have to face Japan, who are going to grow in their game and are capable of fighting for qualification,” said the modest Pekerman on Thursday night in Brasilia. “We will see how we deal with it as we move on.”

Thursday was a special day in Colombian football. They were facing their strongest rivals in the group and, in a game that was in the balance throughout, overcame them in the second half with goals from thrilling youngsters James Rodriguez and Juan Quintero. After the  0-0 draw between Japan and Greece ensured their passage through to the last 16, only two unlikely results on Tuesday evening would stop them winning the group. One point, against Japan in Cuiaba, would be enough.

 

That would mean a last-16 match against the runners-up in England’s Group D at the Maracana next Saturday night. The golden generation of Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla, of whom much was expected, did not get out of their group at the 1994 or 1998 tournaments. The current players, new on this stage, and the travelling fans, after 16 years of waiting, must be excited. Pekerman, though, is staying calm.

James Rodriguez (centre) celebrates after scoring Colombia’s first goal in their 2-1 win over Ivory Coast James Rodriguez (centre) celebrates after scoring Colombia’s first goal in their 2-1 win over Ivory Coast (EPA)
“It is, of course, a huge pleasure to see Colombia coming to this level, first of all at the World Cup after such a long period of time, and then having enjoyed two consecutive victories with players who are here for the first time, so they are all very positive situations for us. However, we cannot start thinking ahead of time or what might be coming later on.”

Colombia have excellent players, especially going forward, but Pekerman’s cool experience has held them all together. No one in the squad has been to a World Cup finals before, but Pekerman has, coaching Argentina in 2006, and it has rubbed off. “He has helped us so much,” said Rodriguez after the Ivory Coast game, “he always wants us to play well.”

Rodriguez has been at the heart of everything good that Colombia have done so far. The little midfielder, who plays for Monaco, is the  No 10 within the 4-2-3-1 system, unleashing the pace out wide of Juan Cuadrado and Victor Ibarbo, as well as arriving late into the box to score himself. Rodriguez made the first and scored the third against Greece, and on Thursday scored the first and made the second.

It has been an impressive assumption of responsibility from the 22-year-old, reacting to the absence of Radamel  Falcao by becoming the new leader of the team. Pekerman is certainly impressed with how his players have stepped up with their talismanic striker ruled out with a knee injury. “It is not easy to substitute someone who was so important,” said Pekerman. “The high responsibility, the pressure of replacing Falcao represented a certain uncertainty.”

Teofilo Gutierrez is not a world-beater up front but he has worked hard for the team, and Pekerman has Jackson Martinez, Carlos Bacca and Adrian Ramos to call on from the bench. They have talent going forward, certainly, and experience at the back. Mario Yepes, the oldest outfield player at this World Cup, earned his 100th cap on Thursday and did so shackling Wilfried Bony, Gervinho and Didier Drogba with all his nous and skill.

Yepes, the captain, is a veteran of 38 but even he was not playing when Colombia last reached the knockout round, at Italia ’90, when they lost to Cameroon. These are exciting times, although Pekerman has always promised to stay cool. “Colombia waited a long time to play in a World Cup,” he said. “The players are new to this, we need to keep calm.”

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