Stumbling through his words and fighting back the tears, Jose Nestor Pekerman choked out a goodbye. After six-and-a-half years as Colombia’s coach, the Argentinian had decided to call it a day. No previous Colombia boss had ever lasted as long; nobody in the history of the national team had ever been so successful.
Yet as Pekerman finished reading a solemn statement amid the fug of a press conference jammed with journalists restlessly preparing questions, the 69-year-old’s mood suddenly and uncharacteristically turned.
“The amount of lies and drivel that’s been said about me; few countries would do that,” Pekerman fired. “It has been so disappointing.”
Emotion unleashed and gloves off, he continued unabated. Pressed by Caracol Television, the domestic rights holder for the country’s international games, to confirm whether the Colombian Football Federation’s (FCF) version of “personal reasons” for his
“The amount of lies and drivel that’s been said about me; few countries would do that. It has been so disappointing” Addressing the media during his resignation speech
resignation was accurate, Pekerman again barked back: “Now’s not the time to go into detail.” He then paused before adding: “And I certainly wouldn’t tell your channel anyway.”
The normally reticent coach’s barbed responses surprised many and soured what should have been a fitting send-off for the man who boasts the best results in Los Cafeteros’ 94-year history. But the rumours of discontent had been simmering even before Colombia’s World Cup penalty shoot-out defeat to England two months earlier. Most people already knew this was the end of an era.
After a brief holiday in Miami with his wife, Matilde, Pekerman returned to Bogota and waited for the phone to ring. But for two months nobody at the federation ever called; not until a few days before his contract was due to expire on August 31.
That relations had broken down between Pekerman and the FCF was no secret. Ever since FCF president Luis Bedoya handed himself in to the authorities in 2015 after admitting to taking bribes, Pekerman had lost his main confidant within the federation’s seven-man ruling body.
The media had also started to gossip. Accusations were tossed at Pekerman and his agent Pascual Lezcano, an Argentinian businessman accused of using the Colombian national team to broker player transfers. Journalists disgruntled by the swamp of silence through which Pekerman had always led the national team, continued to throw their mud. But no evidence was ever found.
Stirring media frustration further was the confession of team doctor Carlos Ulloa that the press had been fed false information about player injuries throughout the World Cup. “We lied because that’s part of the game,” Ulloa told Fox Sports. “We knew James [Rodriguez] had no chance of playing against England.”
Uncertainty and wild speculation had poisoned relations between Pekerman, the federation and certain sections of the media. But the coach’s departure was mourned by the fans. His serene and humble conduct, tight professionalism and success on the pitch had changed Colombian football for the better.
“It’s the final whistle of one of those great games you never want to end,” read the editorial in Colombia’s biggest newspaper, El Tiempo. “A decent man leaves us having earned the affection and respect of all the players.”
Before Pekerman, Colombia had been a shambles. After 16 years wading in the backwaters of international football, South America’s second-most populous nation was growing tired of mediocrity. But when Pekerman took over, in January 2012, he immediately made a break with the past. Fans, journalists, agents, entrepreneurs and the meddling
influences of the old-boys network at the FCF were immediately locked out of the national-team camp.
With Bedoya as his only interlocutor with the outside world, Pekerman went to extreme lengths to maintain discipline and concentration. For most of the year nobody even knew where he was.
He began his reign with a win and then a loss, against Peru and Ecuador, but the performances were unconvincing and the media was already on his back.
Dragging the team off to Spain in August 2012, he chose to sacrifice the option of using the FIFA window to play friendlies in favour of daily training sessions behind closed doors. “Insanity!” screamed one of the country’s top football journalists.
Yet a month later Colombia thumped Uruguay 4-0 to kick-start a run of four straight wins on route to qualification for Brazil 2014 in second place. In the stands in Barranquilla, the sweaty Caribbean port where Colombia choose to play their home games, “Pekerman for president” banners were regularly unfurled. His approval ratings were higher than for anyone else in the country.
In Brazil, the team swept to four straight wins and waltzed into the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time. For a country that had previously only recorded three victories in total at the finals this was something special.
Colombia were eventually bullied out of the tournament by the hosts in a tempestuous last-eight tie in Fortaleza. But Pekerman had not only made history, he had also helped cast a new light on the country’s international reputation.
That positive identity, a swirl of dancing and dazzling football, was perhaps the apex of Pekerman’s achievements. PostBrazil he would struggle to overhaul the squad and maintain Colombia’s level. Nevertheless, his side were still just a crossbar away from another last-eight World Cup finish in Russia this year.
In the post-mortem of his resignation, many felt it had taken a foreign eye to put Colombia’s national team back on its perch. Yet the Argentinian coach was no stranger to Colombian football or the country’s culture.
Back in 1975, the 25-year-old Pekerman was an undistinguished central midfielder when he signed for Deportivo Independiente Medellin. He had recently married and was carrying a knee injury.
“He wasn’t super talented but he was
useful and intelligent,” his coach Humberto Ortiz told Cromos magazine. “He was the opposite of an individualist.” Wearing the number eight shirt he became known as the Hormiguita – the “little ant”.
But just two years later, and following the birth of his first daughter, Pekerman’s career crunched to a halt. Sat eating breakfast one morning he jarred his dodgy knee when springing up from his chair. Despite surgery to repair torn ligaments, the knee remained inflamed and he would never play professionally again.
Returning to Argentina “to be in a place of comfort”, Pekerman picked up a newspaper and saw an advert seeking taxi drivers. It was 1978, Argentina was about to host the World Cup and he had a young family to support. Just a few months after playing in front of thousands of fans, the 28-year-old borrowed a Renault 12 from his brother, Tito, and worked eight hours a day fighting his way through the Buenos Aires traffic.
Little by little he came to terms with the premature end of his 12-year playing career and began studying for a coaching badge in his spare time with Jose D’Amico, a founder member of the Argentinian FA’s coaching school.
For 10 years Pekerman worked virtually unnoticed with the youth teams at Chacarita Juniors, Argentinos Juniors and then in Chile with Colo Colo. When he returned home, he would be handed his big break.
In the early 1990s Argentina’s under20s had lost their way. At the 1991 World Cup they were eliminated in the first round and a contemptible performance in a 3-0 thrashing by hosts Portugal saw the team return home in disgrace. Three men were sent off – including striker Juan Esnaider for trying to head-butt the referee – as Reinaldo Merlo’s team tried to use extreme violence to halt Luis Figo and his team-mates.
FIFA suspended Esnaider for a year and banned Argentina from the next Under-20 World Cup. Merlo blamed the referee and stepped down.
Despite far more qualified candidates going for the vacant position, the AFA opted for the unknown Pekerman to root out the aggression and restructure Argentinian youth football.
Just as he would do almost two decades later in Colombia, he began by shutting the door to all outside influences, while stressing to the players that the filth and aggression of the past would no longer be tolerated.
His first big test was the 1995 South American Youth Championship, where Argentina lost in the group final to finish runners-up behind Brazil. Three months later at the Qatar finals Pekerman would have his revenge.
In Doha, at the end of April, Argentina won the Under-20 World Cup for only the second time. Pekerman had exceeded expectations and victory over old foes Brazil in the Final was the icing on the cake.
Two years later, Argentina were back for the Malaysia finals, this time as South American champions. With a 2-1 win over neighbours Uruguay in the Final, Pekerman secured successive world titles. Curiously, the young Albicelestes were also awarded the FIFA Fair Play Award, an unthinkable recipient just a few years earlier.
On home soil in 2001, Pekerman made it a hat-trick of World Cups and was hailed the best youth coach in the world. Again, Argentina added the fairplay trophy.
One of those who played under Pekerman is Gabriel Milito, and speaking to Colombian journalist Javier Hernandez Bonnet, the former Barcelona defender described him “as the most important coach” in his career. The backbone to
the Argentinian’s success, Milito added, was the coach’s meticulous approach to the game: “He has never done a single thing in his life without carefully analysing absolutely everything.”
It was this fine attention to respecting a serious process, constructed gradually over time, that was behind Pekerman’s decision to twice turn down his country, in 1998 and 2002.
“If you want success you need at least 10 years building a project,” he would explain years later. Instead, he became Argentina’s general manager, working alongside senior coach Marcelo Bielsa – until 2004 when El Loco unexpectedly quit. At the third time of asking, Pekerman finally gave in and led Argentina at the 2006 World Cup.
After scoring six against Serbia – with Esteban Cambiasso’s strike coming at the end of a sumptuous 26-touch move – Argentina stormed out of Group C before beating Mexico 2-1 in extra-time in the second round.
Against the host nation Germany in the quarter-finals, Argentina were leading with 11 minutes left to play. Pekerman had already decided to close the game down, taking off playmaker Juan Riquelme, and then, with his final change, throwing on the tall Julio Cruz to tackle Germany’s height.
But a minute later Germany equalised from a Miroslav Klose header before winning 4-2 on penalties. And all the while, 19-year-old prodigy Lionel Messi remained slumped on the bench, arms crossed, face creased with frustration.
To this day many still haven’t forgiven Pekerman for ignoring Messi.
“What do we have to do so that these decisions aren’t only taken by the coach?” AFA president Julio Grondona fumed straight after the game. Pekerman immediately resigned.
A few years later the wily boss would be afforded a wry smile. When Messi won his first Ballon d’Or in 2009, he dedicated the award to his former coach. “This is for Pekerman,” Messi said arms aloft. “He gave me a lot of advice that I will never forget.”
The special relationship between Messi and Pekerman had actually started many years earlier when the coach was serving as sporting director at Spanish second division side Leganes in 2003.
Pekerman had one day decided to travel to Alcorcon on the outskirts of Madrid to watch Messi play for the first time. Speaking to coach Gines Menendez after the game, the Spain under-16s coach dropped a throwaway line that piqued Pekerman’s interest: “It’s just a shame he’s not yet Spanish.”
Pekerman immediately rang his old assistant Hugo Tocalli, who was by then in the Argentina under-20 hot-seat and who convinced Grondona to arrange an impromptu friendly.
Against Paraguay, in June 2004, Argentina scored eight times in front of just 200 fans. Five days after his 17th birthday, Messi bagged the seventh and the Albiceleste secured the future of one of football’s greatest talents.
Again Pekerman’s long-term vision had produced results. His patient approach tied to behindthe-scenes hard work has, unsurprisingly, lent itself more to the international game. Indeed, Pekerman’s only dalliance with club football came from 2007 to 2009 during two stints in Mexico with Toluca and Tigres. Neither was a roaring success.
Now, just like post-Mexico, he will take time out to be with his family. Aged 69, he perhaps has one big project left. An anomaly in the modern game he might be, but for building legacies rather than chasing short-term fixes, there are few coaches that can match Pekerman’s pedigree.
“He has never done a single thing in his life without carefully analysing absolutely everything” Former Argentina defender Gabriel Milito
Heartbreak...defeat on penalties at the 2018 World Cup
Grateful...Colombia supporters thank their coach
No chance...James Rodriguez had to sit out the England game
Leadership...extra time in the 2006 World Cup last-16 game against Mexico
Success...Argentina celebrate winning the Under-20 World Cup in 2001