Jose Pekerman: A Hero of Colombia
Yesterday José Pékerman announced that he has stepped down as Colombia's National Team coach after 6-and-a-half years.
"My Colombian daughter must be sad, but I leave with happiness for having people's support'' he said. However, it is anything but true that his daughter will be the only one feeling sad after hearing the news.
The return of the Los Cafeteros
Pékerman was signed as Colombia's coach in January 2012, replacing Leonel Alvarez who was in charge for only three games but his results were rather disappointing. At that time, the team was competing for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and Pékerman was the third coach of the Los Cafeteros during that stage after Alvarez and Dario Gomez. A difficult task was ahead for him.
Colombia had not managed to participate in a World Cup final stage since 1998. Moreover, until Pékerman arrived, the team's best position in a World Cup was in Mexico (1990) where they were eliminated in the round of 16. 2002 to 2012 was arguably the worst period in the national team's history.
Even though Colombia started the qualifiers poorly (1 win, 1 draw, 1 loss), Pékerman managed to lead the South Americans to the final stage. With him at the helm, Colombia ended the qualifiers in the third place only behind the host Brazil and Argentina. One of the most important achievements of his was that his team managed to concede only 13 goals in the qualifiers, the best defence in that stage.
Following the qualification to the World Cup, Pekerman was honored by receiving the Colombian citizenship from the president of the country, Juan Manuel Santos. More achievements were to follow.
Colombia and Pekerman's achievements in the 2014 World Cup
Pekerman's achievements with the Los Cafeteros were not limited to the country's first qualification to a World Cup final stage after 16 years. In the opening match group stage, Colombia beat Greece 3-0, the country's biggest win in a World Cup. The team qualified from the group stage with 3 wins over Greece, Ivory Coast, and Japan scoring nine goals and conceding only two. In fact, it was the first time in their history that they won their group in a World Cup group stage.
In the round of 16th, Colombia defeated Uruguay with two goals from an exceptional James Rodriguez. Thus, Pekerman led Colombia to their first ever participation in a World Cup quarterfinals, where they would eventually fell to the hosts Brazil. Despite this, Colombia's success in the 2014 World Cup was immense. The team was awarded the Fair Play Trophy while James Rodiguez and Juan Cuadrado were named top goal scorer and assist leader, respectively.
Indicative of Colombia's success in the 2014 World Cup was the fact that, despite their elimination, thousands of Colombians welcomed the team in Bogota on 5 July 2014 (pictured below). Jose Pekerman and James Rodriguez particularly were greeted as national heroes and in August, the Argentinian renewed with Colombia until 2018.
Colombia in the 2015 Copa America and the Copa América Centenario
Regardless of the extremely successful 2014 World Cup for Colombia, Pekerman and his men were disappointing in the upcoming Copa America. In fact, even though Colombia qualified from their group after finishing third (1 win, 1 draw, 1 loss), the Los Cafeteros were knocked-out by Argentina in the quarter-finals.
One year after, in the Copa América Centenario hosted in the USA, Pekerman guided the team to the semi-finals where they fell to Chile. Colombia then beat the USA in the third-place final. This was their best result since winning the tournament in 2001.
Russia 2018: The final show of Pekerman
The 68-years-old now veteran guided Colombia to their second consecutive participation in a final stage of a World Cup. The team earned a deserved but very difficult qualification from the South American World Cup qualifiers by finishing 4th with 27 points, only one more than Peru and Chile.
In Russia, the Los Cafeteros were grouped together with Japan, Poland, and Senegal. A challenging group, yet Colombia qualified first with 2 wins and 1 loss. Pekerman's team fell then to England in a penalty shoot-out in the round of 16.
Yesterday, Pekerman confirmed that he chose not to renew his contract with Colombia. During the 2433 days he stayed in the team's wheel, Colombia won 43 times while drawing 17 and losing only 18.
Colombians see Pekerman as a national hero and no one can doubt it. The Argentinian led the Los Cafeteros to two consecutive World Cups while reaching the quarterfinals in 2014 was the best result in the history of the national team. Under Pekerman, Colombia's new and promising generation of footballers reinvigorated people's interest in the national team, a love that was nearly lost after Colombia won the Copa America in 2001 and until the Argentinian arrived.
Pekerman is undoubtedly Colombia's most successful manager, along with Fransisco Maturana of the golden 1990s. Under Pekerman, Colombia reached their best-ever ranking in the FIFA Ranking, the 6th place in 2016 and they haven't fallen under the 16th since. The veteran has evidently left quite a legacy and a new, doubtful era for the South Americans is about to begin.