Coach pro­file

Jose Pekerman

World Soccer - - Contents -

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

Heart­­feat 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

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