In the second of a popular two-part series, Gavan Casey gives us an insight into Colombian football and how, twenty years on, the new golden generation can finally banish the demons of World Cup ’94.
An inauspicious start to COMNEBOL qualifying saw Colombia collect four points from their opening three games and drop out of the qualification places. A 1-1 draw at home to the country’s political rivals Venezuela in November 2011 left many fans needing an extra sugar, and somewhat tainted an impressive 2-1 victory over Bolivia in La Paz the previous month. A 1-2 reversal at home to Argentina, while missing the likes of Falcao and Fredy Guarín, resulted in the heavily chastised decision to oust former legend Leonel Álvarez after only three months on the job. Enter The Professor.
José Pékerman is what a Sky Sports pundit may describe as “a proper football bloke.” A softly-spoken and rather mysterious character, it would not be unfair to say he has taken the road less travelled in a bizarre managerial career spanning three decades. Though best noted as the tactical force behind Argentina’s most famous World Cup goal not scored by Maradona, his managerial stripes were earned some years before Germany 2006 — at the respective helms of youth setups in both Argentina and Chile.
Rather curiously, he was catapulted to the managerial position of Argentina’s under 20s side in 1994 whilst widely unheralded, but critics of the decision to appoint him were silenced within a year; Argentina lifted the World Youth Championships in Qatar in 1995. The success was repeated in Malaysia in 1997 before, in a rather fittingly romantic final year as under 20s manager in 2001, he won his third World Youth Championships. Where? Argentina, of course.
Regarded as somewhat of a ‘professor of football’ in his native land, it was Pékerman who masterminded the appointment of a young Marcelo Bielsa as senior national manager after World Cup ’98.
He also owns three dogs, named after his three World Championship triumphs: Qatar, Malaysia and Argentina.
Pékerman’s appointment as Colombian manager in January 2012 was not a universally popular one, but an offensively expressive 2-0 friendly victory over 2011 Gold Cup champions Mexico again silenced the veteran’s critics. A sensational qualification resumption under his leadership saw Colombia win away in Peru, before a September 2012 4-0 destruction of Uruguay in Barranquilla — which ended an unbeaten Los Charrúas run spanning back to the 2010 World Cup.
After a string of impressive results, qualification for the Colombia’s 4th World Cup finals was clinched with a 3-3 draw at home to fellow qualifiers Chile, with a late Falcao brace aiding his side to a famous comeback from 3-0 down.
3-3 versus the impressive Chileans can be viewed as a rather misleading result on paper; it conceals the imposing defensive organisation shown by Colombia over the course of qualification. Indeed, for all the offensive flair shown under their Argentinian manager, it remains a solid defensive ship steered by 38-year-old captain Mario Yepes which is arguably the foundation of the side. A 0-0 draw in Argentina last year was hardly on par with Los Cafeteros’ 5-0 demolition 20 years before it, but in rendering Messi, Aguero and co. impotent at home (Argentina amassed only a single shot on target), Colombia displayed an element of defensive grit not seen in the two preceding decades.
In a run of 2 defeats in 18 games, Colombia have kept 10 clean sheets. And with regards to opposition quality, Argentina was no ‘Richard-Dunne-in-Russia’-like flash in the pan. November 2013 friendlies also saw the men in yellow turn Eden Hazard’s Belgium over in Brussels, before a highly respectable stalemate in Amsterdam versus the sixteen-game unbeaten Dutch.
For all their defensive prowess, penetration going forward is hardly an issue. The same eighteen-game streak has seen Pékerman’s charges notch 35 goals, with a synchronised system of world class talent bombarding forward at every opportunity. Finishing second only to Argentina by two points in a qualifying group (albeit lacking the World Cup hosts) was as deserved as it was unexpected.
Colombia who lay a lowly 35th when José Pékerman took the managerial reigns in 2012, will arrive in Brazil as the fifth best FIFA-ranked team in the world… And the FIFA rankings never lie.
But curb your enthusiasm; with 102 goals in 139 games in European club football, did Colombia’s World Cup aspirations blow up with AS Monaco striker Radamel Falcao’s cruciate ligament in January? Included in Colombia’s 30-man provisional squad despite an initial predicted recovery date of September, it seems certain that a decision on Falcao’s inclusion in Pékerman’s final 23 — set to be named on June 2nd — will go to the wire.
The magnitude of ‘El Tigre’s‘ injury sent shockwaves through world football, most notably in his traumatised native land, where the commencement of the domestic season saw all players wear ‘Fuezra Tigre’ (‘Strong Tiger’) t-shirts during their warm ups.
Fighting the urge to mention Falcao’s name without using the adjective “talismanic” is exceedingly difficult. The nation’s number nine remains more than just a footballer; he is a man of the people. A demi-god. And with nine goals in qualifying, in mere football terms he remains the indisputable lynchpin of this Colombian outfit. A box office ability to win games with one swing of either boot while the teammates around him have an off day — which was seen particularly frequently at Atlético Madrid — has ascended him to the highest echelon of football’s stars.
What if the unthinkable comes to fruition? L’Equipe report that the Monaco striker, despite being back in training, will not recover sufficiently to be included in Colombia’s final squad. As monumental a blow as it would be to the nation, the pragmatic mind may wander to Spain, where Atlético’s unforeseeable success this season was all attained without Falcao’s immeasurable quality following his summer departure.
A reshuffle of Diego Simeone’s well-concealed deck saw a more than adequate replacement in Diego Costa thrive as the spearhead of a well-coached attack, where once he played sidekick to the great Colombian.
In FC Porto’s Jackson Martinez, Colombia themselves retain the services of a like-for-like Falcao replacement. The reported Chelsea target has registered 44 times in 59 games for Porto — a ratio to rival even that of the man he was signed to replace in 2012.
The potential replacement options certainly don’t end there, and the focus in Colombia’s World Cup warm-up friendlies will likely avert to finding the most proficient strike partnership available in the event of a worst case scenario. With 12 international goals to his name, cult hero Téo Gutierrez will likely lead the line, but other striking options include Udinese speed-merchant Luis Muriel — an enigmatically talented 23 year old often compared to Brazil’s Ronaldo by Serie A pundits and fans alike. Another tipped to fill the slot if necessary is Sevilla’s Carlos Bacca, who has two goals versus Real Madrid along with twelve others to his name in a Europa League-winning season.
The attacking responsibility isn’t carried only by the plethora of strikers at their disposal; Fiorentina’s electric Juan Cuadrado’s attacking qualities have given birth to speculation that a move to Liverpool is on the horizon. A revelation in Florence this season, Cuadrado has scored 10 goals from the wing — a number of them quite spectacular.
Interchanging with Cuadrado out wide is the most expensive Colombian footballer in history, James Rodriguez, who joined Falcao at AS Monaco for €45m last summer. The former Porto man has 9 goals himself this season and offers similar threats to Cuadrado, as well as sumptuous set-piece delivery.
Central midfielder Fredy Guarín of Inter is also given frequent licence to roam, and is an accomplished creative influence and offensive threat. His right foot, in a word, is nuclear.
In truth, Colombia’s current squad anything but pales in comparison to the ‘dream team’ of ’94. It would be naïve to suggest their World Cup dreams rest solely on the broad shoulders of the nation’s legendary number 9.
Gavan Casey, Pundit Arena.