Monday, September 10, 2018

Colombia's life after Pekerman

THE COFFEE MAKERS SEEK THE SAME RECIPE AS THEIR COACH DEPARTS

I am in Bogota for family reasons but happened to be here while a major era for Colombia's national team came to a sudden end.

One day before they played a friendly against Venezuela, Colombia announced respected coach Jose Pekerman, who had led Los Cafeteros in the last two World Cups, was leaving the job.

The news was mildly surprising but came as no shock, given two weeks earlier the federation had said U-20 manager Arturo Reyes would take the helm for the September friendlies.

Contract negotiations had apparently stalled but not died, leaving a chink of light that the Argentine might renew for another World Cup cycle.

The 69 year-old had probably taken his adopted country as far as he could, with the 2014 World Cup last eight finish and third place in the 2016 Copa America notable achievements.

Staying on longer might have yielded no improvement and damaged the excellent relationship Pekerman had built up with the Colombian players and people, a bond so strong he was awarded Colombian citizenship by a grateful government.

After the joy of Brazil, the 2018 World Cup finals were much anticipated in Colombia but ended in frustration with a penalty defeat to England in the second round.

Pekerman and Colombia had struggled to replicate their singing and dancing 2014 edition as talisman James Rodriguez had arrived in Russia carrying a calf injury which saw him play the full 90 minutes at the finals only once.

As it happened, that game saw the Bayern star set up all the goals in his team's best performance, their 3-0 dismissal of Poland.

Although shorn of James, Pekerman was not above criticism however in his cautious team selection against set-piece specialists England, playing three defensive midfielders including Carlos Sanchez, who gave away his second penalty of the tournament in theatrical fashion.

Colombia's foul-ridden and referee-baiting first half was followed by a determined and positive second period, a ying and yang summary of their tournament and perhaps of Pekerman's reign:

An excellent 2014 World Cup, a dismal 2015 Copa America, a very good 2016 Copa America and a somewhat disappointing 2018 World Cup.

Pekerman used the latest data-led management, employed specialist coaches and developed strong personal relationships with his players.

He certainly instilled a winning mentality in his charges and won over the public. To the press he seemed unfailingly gentlemanly and noble although was careful not to speak too much about his philosophy or tactics.

Before the England clash in Russia for example he gave out the false news that James was fit and expected to start when the opposite was the case.

On Friday night in Miami, Colombia took the field without James, still nursing his calf and the injured Yerry Mina, their emerging star from Russia.

Florida seemed an odd choice of venue for two nations which share a border but the city's famous Hispanic expats made sure of a 34,000 turn-out.

The clash had heavy political overtones as Venezuelan migrants are pouring over the border seeking respite from the hyper-inflation of Nicolas Maduro's regime, but creating dismay and resentment in many Colombian communities in so doing.

Venezuela's team on paper however were an easy pill to swallow as the baseball-loving country is traditionally South America's weakest.

But Los Vinotintos started the brighter and had already missed a goalscoring chance before a looping cross totally fooled Colombia's back line and allowed Darwin Machis to fire past David Ospina.

Colombia completely dominated the rest of the game however and showed fiery attacking intent, deservedly equalising through Radamel Falcao ten minutes after half time and gaining a deserved winner in the 90th minute when pint-sized Yimmy Chara netted after some penalty box chaos.

Without James, it was incumbent on Juan Quintero to orchestrate and once again the 25 year-old River Plate midfielder showed he can pull the strings when required.

Juventus winger Juan Cuadrado also showed how incisive and useful he can be when supplied enough.

Yellow shirts on children and adults were everywhere to be seen in Bogota, the Colombian capital on Friday even though it was only a no-stakes friendly with a lesser opponent.

The fervour this country has for its national team never ceases to impress and inspire me.

'La Camiseta' (the team shirt) has become a national totem of pride but also of criticism for masking the very real problems of the nation, though supporters argue they don it precisely to unite and feel happy albeit for 90 minutes in the face of so much gloom.

With 2019's Copa America in Brazil their next competition, all soccer talk was about the vacant hot seat now Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio, who managed Mexico at Russia 2018, has chosen Paraguay instead.

The other names in the frame seem unlikely - assistant Nestor Lorenzo, Croatia's coach Zlatko Dalic, Carlos Queiroz and even Guus Hiddink, but what connects them is their foreignness:

There is a train of thought that Colombian coaches can be too easy manipulated by certain agents or regional factions; memories linger of the bitter 1994 campaign when the country's narco-war spilled into the World Cup and defender Andres Escobar was shot dead.

The last six years have been a happy rebirth on the field for one of South America's most passionate football nations thanks largely to Pekerman and for that reason everyone made a point of saluting him as a national hero.

The country really wants the new belief and confidence of his reign to continue.

Whoever his successor will be, the baton he passes on is a heavy one to carry.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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