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World Cup 2014: Colombia manager trying hard to dampen expectations

World Cup 2014: Colombia manager trying hard to dampen expectations

Posted by Adrian Pelaez on June 23, 2014

José Pékerman is a classic take-one-game-at-a-time manager. For the 64-year-old Argentinian, football is about what happens today, not tomorrow. All of which is fine, apart from the fact that Pékerman has made Colombia dream. They have qualified for the knockout stage with a game to spare and Friday 4 July is the date already being circled on calendars. A mouth-watering quarter-final against Brazil could be on the cards.

Pékerman has his mind focused on taking on Japan in Cuiabá on Tuesday, not Brazil in Fortaleza next week. He wants to play things down, not talk them up, which is why he chose his words carefully when asked about comparisons with the Colombia side that reached the knockout stage in 1990. “It’s impossible not to think of that Colombia team that astonished the world of football at that time,” he said. “The memories are very well kept in our minds and our hearts. We will not get carried away thinking we can go further than them. We still have a game against Japan to think about.”

Who could forget that Colombia side of 24 years ago? René Higuita, the extrovert who tried one dribble too many against Cameroon, in goal. Carlos Valderrama, with his extraordinary mop of hair, effortlessly popping the ball around in midfield and, memorably, forcing the brilliant Barry Davies to eat his words in the commentary box after delivering the majestic pass that led to Colombia levelling against Germany at Italia 90. Freddy Rincón, a powerful, leggy striker, was the man who dispatched Valderrama’s gift, taking Colombia into the last 16.

They have gone down in history, yet most Colombians would argue that Pékerman is blessed with a more talented squad – certainly more disciplined – even without Radamel Falcao, whose absence through injury has not just robbed them of their talisman but prompted the manager to scrap the 4-2-2-2 formation he used throughout qualification and replace it with a 4-2-3-1 system in which Teófilo Gutiérrez is the focal point.

Pékerman’s team are fascinating to watch. They have won their opening two games, scored five goals, conceded once, produced some exhilarating attacking football, yet not dominated either match. Against a limited Greece side in the opening game, Colombia had 47.8% of possession. Against Ivory Coast last Thursday, that figure dropped to 44.6%. Colombia belong to football’s new-age – penetration over possession.

They are absolutely lethal on the counter-attack, helped by their embarrassment of riches going forward, starting with the gifted James Rodríguez, the Monaco midfielder who wears Valderrama’s coveted No10 shirt and has two World Cup goals to his name. “He is going to be one of the best players in this World Cup,” Pékerman said after the 22-year-old was named man-of-the-match against Ivory Coast.

As well as Rodríguez played in that 2-1 win in Brasília, the standout player in the eyes of many was Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, the Fiorentina winger. With electric pace, an eye for a pass and ridiculously quick feet – the double stepover that left Arthur Boka, the Ivory Coast left-back, totally disorientated early in the second half was something to behold – Cuadrado is a joy to watch and it is no surprise that Barcelona are trying to sign him.

Then there is Juan Fernando Quintero, the 21-year-old Porto midfielder who came off the bench, slotted seamlessly into the role of playmaker, scored Colombia’s second goal and came close to adding an audacious third with a 60-yard shot that had the Ivory Coast goalkeeper frantically backpedalling. Many Colombia fans would like to see Quintero start against Japan.

It is incredible to think other stellar names are still waiting for their chance. Jackson Martínez, the leading scorer in Portugal last season with 29 goals for Porto in all competitions, has played 14 minutes at the World Cup. Adrián Ramos, signed by Borussia Dortmund to replace Robert Lewandowski, has yet to kick a ball. Carlos Bacca, who plundered 21 goals for Sevilla and helped them win the Europa League, is in the same boat after picking up a slight muscle injury.

It is easy to see why optimism abounds among Colombia’s wonderfully colourful supporters here. The only sadness is that for some back home in Bogotá, the heady mix of a first World Cup victory in 16 years and too much to drink had tragic consequences. Nine people died in the Colombian capital after violent clashes in the wake of that 3-0 win over Greece, prompting Bogotá’s mayor, Gustavo Petro, to impose a 24-hour alcohol ban on the day of the Ivory Coast match. “We hope for celebrations of soccer in peace. Reject violence,” Petro tweeted.

Pékerman probably has a better chance than anyone of restoring order. At the voting booths during the country’s recent elections, people were crossing out the candidates and writing down the manager’s name instead. “It makes you smile, because football doesn’t have anything to do with being at the helm of the country. But I do take it as evidence of the warmth of the people,” he said. “It’s payback because we’ve brought this team to a World Cup.”

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