July 2, 2018 / 5:55 PM / 10 months ago

Soccer: Hero to Colombia, Pekerman eyes another World Cup triumph

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Argentine architect of Colombia’s stunning return to the World Cup in Brazil, Jose Pekerman may be poised for an even greater coup in Russia should he successfully plot the downfall of Gareth Southgate’s England in the round of 16.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Colombia Training - Spartak Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 2, 2018 Colombia coach Jose Pekerman during training REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

The 68-year-old Pekerman, who is the first coach to guide Colombia to the knockout rounds at successive World Cups, will bid to take ‘Los Cafeteros’ to a second quarter-final on Tuesday, four years after their stellar run in Brazil.

A confident England may represent Pekerman’s sternest test since Colombia were knocked out by the 2014 hosts in Fortaleza.

But success would open a smooth road to the final, with Brazil, France and Belgium all jostling in the other side of the draw.

Already bestowed citizenship for his services to Colombian football, Pekerman was feted by huge crowds in Bogota after midfield magician James Rodriguez and his team mates stormed into the 2014 quarter-finals.

An offer of the presidency might almost be expected if Pekerman can go further in Russia.

Yet, barring a thrilling 3-0 demolition of Poland in Kazan, the current campaign has been more hard work and less salsa-dancing joy for the South Americans.

Pekerman came under fire from Colombian media after their 2-1 defeat to Japan in the first group match.

But the thin man from Villa Dominguez in the northeast of Argentina was probably unfazed by it, having developed a thick skin from a bruising career in Argentine football.

A serious knee injury ended his own playing ambitions in the 1970s and he drove taxis among other odd jobs before reinventing himself as a manager.

Famous for getting the best out of young talents, Pekerman coached Argentina’s Under-20 teams to world titles in 1995, 1997 and 2001, before taking over the senior team in 2004 for a stormy two-year stint.

Handing Lionel Messi his international debut, Pekerman led Argentina to the 2006 World Cup but his tenure ended in acrimony, the quarter-final defeat by hosts Germany marred by a mass brawl between the players.

He resigned immediately and spent years in the coaching wilderness, taking a string of jobs in the Mexican league.

Colombia, a country he knew well during his playing days as a midfielder for Independiente Medellin, came calling in 2012.

Steering them through qualifying, Pekerman became a national hero for helping end the nation’s 16-year World Cup drought.

The Colombian team in Russia is more seasoned than the wide-eyed outfit that landed in Brazil but each campaign has produced similar challenges.

Pekerman lost Radamel Falcao to injury before the 2014 tournament and his ability to prepare the team without the influential striker was important in their success.

Four years on, Pekerman faces a similar conundrum managing the fitness of Rodriguez, who was forced off with a leg injury early in their 1-0 win over Senegal.

“I don’t like speaking about individual players but we have a lot of potential as a team,” Pekerman told reporters on Monday.

“We have come to this World Cup hoping to do what we are ready to do in Brazil — play a good tournament and show that we are on the same level as top teams like England.”

Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, writing by Ian Ransom; Editing by Neil Robinson

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