After safely steering his coaching career through the often hazardous world of South American football, it should come as no surprise to learn that Jose Pekerman’s long road to the World Cup once included a stint as a taxi-driver.
The 68-year-old Colombia coach arrives in Russia as the second longest-serving coach of any major national team in South America, a six-year reign in charge of “Los Cafeteros” that has included back-to-back World Cup qualifications.
The respected tactician rose to prominence after leading his native Argentina to a trio of Under-20 World Cup triumphs in 1995, 1997 and 2001.
However his tenure as coach of Argentina’s senior side ended in bitter disappointment at the 2006 World Cup when his team lost a stormy quarter-final on penalties to Germany before triggering a mass brawl.
That game was Pekerman’s last in charge of Argentina. He resigned after the loss amid a chorus of criticism over his decisions in the defeat, notably leaving a teenage Lionel Messi on the bench and omitting Javier Zanetti.
His exile from international football ended in 2012 however when he was handed the job of revitalising Colombia’s fortunes.
Pekerman’s impact was swift, rapidly developing one of the most exciting sides in South America, studded with skilful Europe-based players who flourished under their coach’s commitment to attacking football.
Pekerman’s impact was swift, successfully guiding Colombia into their first World Cup finals since 1998 when they reached the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
Veteran striker Radamel Falcao said Pekerman’s reign had infused a talented group of players with belief.
“Without a doubt, Pekerman’s arrival turned things round for Colombia in terms of the team’s football, results and self-confidence,” Falcao said.
“He tried to give us the necessary belief to go out there with freedom and play the kind of football that we’re used to.”
At the 2014 World Cup, Pekerman’s team were lauded as one of the most attractive in the competition, romping through the group stage with a 100 percent record after some sparkling performances from James Rodriguez.
A 2-0 defeat of Uruguay in the last 16 — which included a stunning volley from James — was followed by a now infamous quarter-final battle with Brazil, where Pekerman’s team were bullied out of the competition in a 2-1 loss.
Colombia returned to a hero’s welcome in Bogota after their exit, with Pekerman’s position secure.
Colombia were less convincing during South American qualifiers for Russia, grabbing the last automatic qualifying spot from the region to squeeze in ahead of Peru and Chile just a point behind.
However a 3-2 win over France in Paris in March hinted that Pekerman’s side may be peaking at the right time as they prepare for a Group H that features Poland, Senegal and Japan.
While Pekerman has warned of potential pitfalls in a straightforward-looking group, he remains confident. “My team has the character of a World Cup side,” he declared after victory over France earlier this year.