As Pekerman prepares to take charge of his first game in charge of Colombia we look back at the countries greatest side; how the team of 1993 triumphed in Argentina and then crashed out of the 1994 World Cup against the United States. We will also look at Colombia's current side and get expert views on how Pekerman can get the best from his talented squad.
The Colombian national football team arrived in the United States in 1994 as one of the favourites to lift the trophy. The team had eased through qualification, playing stylish, free-flowing football which had left some of the greatest sides in the world chasing shadows. The Colombian side finished qualifying top of their group with an astonishing 5-0 win in Buenos Aires, Argentina's first ever home qualifying defeat. As the World Cup approached the Colombian press waited excitingly to showcase the cafeteros beautiful football on the world stage, pick up the trophy and reinvent the countries international reputation. However, rather than being the defining moment for an incredible team, the 1994 World Cup was a complete disaster. The project coach 'Pacho' Maturana had been building had become discredited, while the faith Colombian's had in the team evaporated. Colombia have been living off past glories since.
Colombian football, as with all area's of Colombia, was transformed throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, as international demand for Colombia's illegal produce swelled the pockets of a small number of violent and reckless entrepreneurs. The implications were felt throughout the country, as small time criminals became multi-millionaire drug traffickers. Colombian officials were forced into complicity or acceptance, given generous bribes for their support or killed for their opposition. International authorities were slow to react to the influx of cocaine, and for over a decade Colombia's cocaine cartel's had free reign to accumulate and spend their incredible wealth as they wished. As a result Atletico Nacional, America de Cali and Millonarios all received substantial investment. Colombian football was now not only able to keep its star players within its domestic leagues, but it could also attract international stars to the country. Diego Maradona was offered $3 million by the head of the Cali cartel to play six months for America de Cali, alongside Peruvian World Cup stars Guillermo La Rosa and Cesar Cueto, Paraguayan striker Roberto Cabañas and Argentine international goalkeeper Julio Cesar Falcioni. Maradona is reported to have agreed, before his club manager reminded him that a deal with Barcelona had agreed.
However, the cartels did not only bring their money into the world of football. The conflict between rival drug gangs was played out on the football field in proxy, America de Cali and Millonarios received substantial financial backing from the Cali Cartel, while Atletico Nacional were supported by Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. Mafia leaders demanded return on their investments, and Colombian football became embroiled in violence and corruption. In 1986 alone eight officials were assinated, including the coach of the national youth team. The secretary of the league was killed in July 1988 and in November 1989 referee Alvaro Ortega was murdered for making a controversial call which enabled America de Cali to pull level against Independiente Medellin. In 1989 the league was suspended as football became overshadowed by violence, corruption and intimidation.
While domestic football reached new highs on the field and worrying new lows off it, the national team became a source of provide and hope in a country which was spiralling into chaos. Francisco 'Pacho' Maturana became manager of both Atletico Nacional and the Colombian national side in 1987. He lead Atletico Nacional to Copa Libertadores glory in 1989 and in 1990 he led the Colombian national team to their first World Cup since 1962. The core of the 1990 Colombian team was made up of Nacional players, with charismatic Carlos 'El Pibe' Valderrama captaining the side. Almost all of the squad played in the Colombian league and the team trained together for two days every two weeks throughout the season. The ciclo micro's (micro cycles), as the training sessions became known, allowed Maturana to give the Colombian national side a real identity and unity. On the field they played fluid, free-flowing football which was reminiscent of the great Holland side of 1974 and an inspiration for the current Barcelona team.
Atletico Nacional's Rene Higuita played an essential role in allowing Colombia's midfield to dictate the play. The goalkeeper attracted international attention following his eccentric performance against England in 1988. 'El Loco' saved a speculative Jamie Rednapp effort with his famous scorpion kick clearance and then dribbled the ball out from goal and rounded England's star striker Gary Lineker. Colombia's keeper played as a sweeper, allowing the defence to hold a high line and their midfield to dominate with their short passing.
Ahead of the 1990 World Cup, Maturana wrote that Higuita "gives us something no one else has, and we take full advantage. With Rene as sweeper, we have 11 outfield players". He continued, explaining that "Jan Jongbloed, the Holland keeper in the 1974 World Cup, also operated as a sweeper. With a difference. The Dutchman came out just to boot the ball into the stands. Higuita can do much more."
In 1990 the Colombia side qualified from their group with a 2-0 win over the United Arab Emirates, a narrow 1-0 defeat against a strong Yugoslavia side and a dramatic 1-1 draw with eventual winners West Germany. In the second round Colombia faced a good Cameroon side with an in form Roger Milla leading the line. Milla gave Cameroon the lead in extra time, before Rene Higuita was dispossessed by the 'indomitable lions' striker close to the halfway line. Colombia pulled a goal back late on, but were unable to draw the tie level. The country was desperately disappointed to have been eliminated by one of the less renowned footballing nations, but a string of impressive performances put Colombia on the map.
Maturana moved to Spain after the tournament to manage Real Valladolid, but returned in 1992 as Colombia began their qualification for the World Cup in USA. Between tournament's the team enjoyed a superb run of results, with only one defeat in 34 games. The campaign culminated with an away trip to Buenos Aires to face an Argentine side who were beaten finalists in 1990. In an interview a few days before the game Maradona dismissed the visitors chances, insisting "it's always Argentina above and Colombia below".
Colombia went on to demolish their opponents 5-0 at El Monumental, inflicting Argentinas first ever home defeat in qualifying. Colombia lead 1-0 after a close first half, but as Argentina pushed for an equalizer Colombia took full control of the game. Valderrama was in inspired form; his poise and balance allowed him inexplicable room to dictate the midfield and pick passes for Colombia's tireless runners. The side maintained the same domestic based core, honed and drilled with the bi-weekly ciclo micro's. However, Asprilla and Rincon had now also been added to the squad. These pacey, direct attackers provided the side with a greater cutting edge which they had lacked four years earlier. Palmeiras' Freddy Rincon and Parma's Faustino Asprilla scored two goals each, while Bayern Munich's Adolfo Valencia touched home the fifth. It was a complete and utter demolition. The Argentine crowd was stunned by the Colombian sides performance. After the fourth goal the home fans cheered each Colombian pass, as Valderrama orchestrated the midfield with Argentine players chasing shadows.
For the Colombian people, the side had gone from stylish underdogs to World Cup champions elect. Assistant manager Hernan Gomez has since expressed the concern the coaching staff felt as expectations reached terrifying new levels.
"When we scored the third, fourth and fifth goals I looked at Pacho and said to him, 'We're in for it now.' They (the media) were going to start saying we were the best team in the world. If we'd have lost they would have said we were the world's worst, but that 5-0 scoreline worried me because there was no sense of perspective in the country" Gomez explained.
While Maturana shared his assistants concerns, he chose to emphasise the scale of the sides achievement.
"That result was excellent because we showed the world that Colombia can rise to the big occasion. Not for nothing did we reach three World Cups in a row. Some say that win went to our heads but that's football. It's a vehicle for dreams and disappointments and winning never does you any harm. That result has nothing to do with what happened later on" the manager insisted.
From an unprecedented high, Colombia fell to an all time low; completely discrediting the project which Pacho had been building. In 1993, talismanic goalkeeper Rene Higuita had been imprisoned by the Colombian government for his connections to Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar. Higuita had received payment for his role as an intermediary in hostage negotiations involving rival cartels. The goalkeeper was imprisoned for seven months before being released without charge. This meant that Colombia appeared at the 1994 without the influential goalkeeper. Instead, the manager turner to inexperienced America de Cali goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba. Cordoba was a talented shot stopper who had impressed during qualifying, but he was not the confident and calming, albeit erratic, presence that Higuita had been.
The Colombian side also faced other distractions as they travelled to the United States. The Colombian government had began a widespread campaign against the Colombian drug cartels and the cartels had responded with violence. Police, politicians and government officials all became targets for the cartels trained killers. With the Colombian state spiralling into chaos, the people hoped and expected that their footballing heroes would provide cause for celebration and begin to transform Colombia's international reputation.
Colombia lost their opening game 3-1 to a talented Romanian side. Colombia dominated possession and played some excellent passing football, however, their play lacked the cutting edge which had seen them triumph over Argentina. Against the run of play Romania took a two goal lead in the first half, with superb individual efforts from influential playmaker Gheorghe Hagi and striker Florin Raducioiu. Valencia pulled a goal back for Colombia and they came close to an equalizer with efforts by Asprilla and Alvarez, but were unable to draw level. As Colombia pressed, Romania broke away and Raducioiu scored his second to put the game beyond doubt.
There have been many explanations for the sides disappointing performance. A columnist from Colombian newspaper El Espectador reported that after the tournament that Asprilla had suggested to him that some of the players may have been influenced by individuals who had placed bets against Colombia to under-perform. Others have suggested the players were overconfident and that they may have enjoyed too many pre-match parties in the hotel. While these claims remain speculation, what is certain is that the pressure on the shoulders of that team was immense.
On the morning of their vital second game against the United States Maturana received an anonymous message from Colombia. The message read, "if you select Gomez against USA, we will set off bombs against your families in Medellin". Maturana spoke to the Gomez brothers, Hernan Dario his assistant and Gabriel 'Barrabas' Colombias experience defender. Gabriel didn't play against the United States and retired from football shortly after. Those who played against the United States were literally playing for their lives. In an interview, Faustino Asprilla explained the fear he felt as kick-off approached.
"I was ready to play a good game but when I saw the trainer crying, the first thing I did after the team talk and before going to the stadium was to call my home. I wanted to know they were OK and to tell them to hide in case anything happened" Asprilla explained. "That's what was on our minds as we went out onto the pitch, we knew there'd be trouble if we didn't win and that we would be killed".
The source of the death threats has never been conclusively identified, but the claim that drug-linked syndicates who had bet millions on a Colombian win were responsible seems the most likely. Whatever the source, it is clear that the pre-match death threats only heightened the anxiety of players who were expected to perform under unbearable strain. Unsurprisingly the team underperformed and on 35 minutes Andres Escobar attempted to clear a John Harkes cross, but instead deflected the goal beyond Cordoba in the Colombia goal. Colombia dominated possession, but their passing was not as crisp and the movement not as fluid. On 52 minutes Earnie Stewart doubled the United States' advantage and despite Colombia's possesion they were unable to respond until the 90th minute. They had lost to the 'gringos' in football. Maturana's side had been tasked with redefining Colombia's image and instead, Colombians felt the shame of losing to their swaggering neighbour to the north in football. The Cafeteros won their final game with an impressive 2-0 win over Switzerland. Despite the win they finished bottom of the group behind the United States.
The tragedy of 1994 was complete when Andres Escobar, a passionate defender and honest family man, was murdered upon his return to Medellin. Colombia had disappointed on the field and then been shamed by events of it. The 1994 World Cup had reinforced all of the worst international stereotypes about the country. Colombians had to again insist their team was 'better than you think' and their country was 'not as bad as you have heard'.
Eighteen years have now past and both these claims remain true. While Colombia still has its problems, the country's security situation is greatly improved and legitimate business now drives the development and improvements enjoyed in Colombia's major cities. The countries football team lacked identity following the 1994 capitulation. The 'ciclo micro' training routine was abandoned, and the Colombian side failed to instil a distinct identity. The club qualified for the 1998 World Cup with many of the players who had played in 1994. However, the sides most influential players were now in their mid-thirties and struggled to impose themselves on the game as they had in Buenos Aires five years earlier. The 1998 World Cup marked the end of an era, and Colombia have failed to qualify for any of the World Cups since. As other South American sides have improved, Colombia struggled as they have sought a new identity, a new 'Pibe' and a Pacho.
Following a mixed start to Colombia's 2014 World Cup qualify campaign Leonel Alvarez was replaced by Argentine manager Jose Nestor Pekerman.
Pekerman played as a right midfielder 134 times for Argentinos Juniors and then moved to Colombia, where he made 101 appearances. He was forced into early retirement at the age of 28 and then took up work as a taxi driver, before he got his first job as a coach for Chacarita Juniors youth side. He went on to work as a youth team coach for Argentinos Juniors, Colo-Colo and in 1994 Argentina's under-20 side. As the national sides under-20 boss he lead the team to three FIFA World Youth Championship titles in 1995, 1997 and 2001. Pekerman become the boss of the Argentine national side in 2004 and lead them to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. His Argentina side played excellent attacking football, with Juan Roman Riquelme as the sides playmaker in the heart of midfield. The team was eventually eliminated in the quaterfinal on penalties against hosts and finalists Germany. The manager was criticised for his decision to replace Boca Juniors favourite Riquelme in the second half against Germany, as he sought to protect a narrow 1-0 lead. However, Argentinians generally consider the 'Pekerman Era' to have been a successful one and AFA boss Julio Grondona reluctantly accepted his resignation in 2006. Since then Pekerman has managed in Mexico with Toluca and Tigres, before agreeing to join Colombia in January 2012.
So what is he likely to do as the manager of Colombia?
Well, it is almost certain that the Colombian side will be built around a '10'. Since 'El Pibe' Colombian football has prized a creative, playmaker more highly than any other position. All of Colombia's major club sides are built around their '10'. Atletico Nacional have Macnelly Torres, Junior de Barranquilla have Giovanni Hernandez, Millonarios have Mayer Candelo, Deportivo Atletico Huila have Sebastian Hernandez and Santa Fe have Omar Perez. A number of the Colombian league's most successful recent exports have also been typical number 10 playmakers, such as Giovanni Moreno at Racing in Argentina and Aldo Ramirez who plays for Morelia in Mexico. Pekerman's teams have also always focused around a number 10. As manager of Argentina he looked to Riquelme, while at youth level Andres D'Alessandro and Pablo Aimar played in that central position.
Pekerman sides have also been built around a solid defence. This would suggest that some of Colombia's move extravagant and offensive midfield players may be dropped for the likes of Carlos Sanchez and Freddy Guarin.
David Ospina is the obvious choice in goal for Colombia, the young goalkeeper who plays in France is a superb shot stopper and a real star for the future.
In defence, Colombia have a number of exciting attacking full backs and experienced centre-backs. At centre-back Pekerman is most likely to choose the experienced pair of A.C Milan's Mario Yepes and Atletico Madrid's Luis Perea. The new manager has selected two further centre-backs in Bernardo Espinosa of Racing Santander and Aquivaldo Mosquero of Mexican club America, suggesting versatile Villareal defender Christian Zapata is most likely to figure at full back. The remainder of Colombia's fullback options are all as well known for their attacking threat as their defensive reliability. Pablo Armero, Christian Zuñiga and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado are all Italian based wing-backs, who are able to play either at fullback or in midfield.
Inter Milan's Freddy Guarin is a noticeable absentee for Colombia's clash with Mexico for Pekerman's first game, but the central midfielder is sure to be key to the new managers plans once he returns from injury. Further forward Pekerman will have to decide who out of Giovanni Moreno or Aldo Ramirez gets the coveted number 10 position in his side. It seems as though Giovanni Moreno, who has impressed in Pekerman's native Argentina, is most likely to be chosen if both are fit. Macnelly Torres, who has been in form excellent for Atletico Nacional in the Copa Libertadores, was a surprise exclusion from Pekerman's squad. The new manager will also have to decide how best to use James Rodriguez. James is able to play on the wing, behind the striker or in the centre of midfield, and has been Colombia's stand out performer so far in qualifying.
Colombia are blessed with an excellent array of striking talents. Atletico Madrid's Radamel Falcao is one of Europe's most sought after strikers, and when fit is guaranteed Colombia's number 9 shirt. Prolific Mexican based 'cha cha cha' Jackson Martinez, who has both performed and been the subject of hip hop ode's, is another option. The strong striker is excellent in the air and was close to sealing a £10 million move to Liverpool in December. However, he is a very similar type of player to Falcao, and it is therefore unlikely that the pair will start together. Teofilo Gutierrez has scored 21 times in 34 appearances for Racing and he is probably the most likely to start alongside Falcao. Other options are the exciting and pacey Dorlan Pabon or Once Caldas' skilful Dayro Moreno. Colombia's strength in depth up front is such, that Premier League striker Hugo Rodallega and Hertha Berlin's Adrian Ramos haven't even made Pekerman's 23 man squad.
Another talented absentee is Cagliari's Victor Ibarbo. Ibarbo moved to Cagliari in 2011 from Atletico Nacional and has so far been limited to substitute appearances. Despite that, he is a real talent for the future and a player who is sure to feature in future Colombian sides. His strength, pace and skill have already drawn comparisons to Colombian great Freddy Rincon. Another talented star of Colombia's youth side is 19 year old Edwin Cardona, who's vision, quick feet and tidy finishing have already attracted international attention.
The 'Pekerman Era' begins on Wednesday 29th February against Mexico in a friendly in Miami. Colombia currently has a group of international stars who play regularly in the strongest leagues in the world. While this brings with it many great benefits, it also provides a challenge. In 1993 Maturana was able to train regularly with the core of his side. Most of his team played in Colombia and they developed a shared vision and identity Pacho's successful team. Pekerman must try to instil a distinct identity and form a unity amongst players from a variety of footballing backgrounds, who play with a variety of different styles. If Los Cafeteros can become a true sum of their parts, they may well be able to fulfil the hopes and aspirations of their predecessors twenty years earlier.
As Pekerman's first game approaches Colombian football experts give their views on how they feel the Argentine should approach his first game in charge.
Charlie Parkinson, Medellin based journalist at 'Colombia Reports'
1. (GK) David Ospina (Nice)
2. (RB) Christian Zapata (Villareal)
3. (LB) Pablo Armero (Udinese)
4. (CB) Mario Yepes (AC Milan)
5. (CB) Luis Perea (At Madrid)
6. (DCM) Freddy Guarin (Inter Milan)
7. (RM) James Rodriguez (Porto)
8. (FW) Dorlan Pabon (Athletico Nacional)
9. (FW) Radamel Falcao (Ath Madrid)
10. (ACM) Macnelly Torres (Athletico Nacional)
11. (LM) Camilo Zuñiga (Napoli)
In selecting my Colombia eleven, the defence all but picks itself. While Ospina, Zapata and Armero are playing regularly at good European clubs, the dogs-of-war combination of Yepes and Perea at the heart of defence offers invaluable experience in a team which otherwise has an average age of under 25. On the flanks is the exciting young James Rodriguez, who has scored nine goals in eleven starts this season in the Portuguese league, and Juan Zuñiga, who often operates as a wing back at club level, but is comfortable playing in a more advanced role. The greatest headache in selecting the team was the dearth of top quality in central midfield, which precluded the use of a midfield three. Freddy Guarin is an obvious choice, but whether he manages to nail down a place in the Inter team will dictate his suitability for the future. In selecting his partner I chose the in-form Macnelly Torres, of Athletico Nacional, in part because of the relationship he has forged at club level with Dorlan Pabon, who is my choice to partner Radamel Falcao up front. The use of Torres, a creative midfielder who sometimes lacks the desire to help defensively, forces Guarin in to a more withdrawn role. Meanwhile the deployment of Pabon, a speedy and powerful goal scorer with four goals in three starts this season, seeks to take advantage of defensive holes which may appear from the likely double marking of Falcao.
Lionel Londoño Martinez, London based Sports writer from Cali, Colombia
1. (GK) David Ospina (Nice)
2. (RB). Camilo Zuñiga (Napoli)
3. (LB) Pablo Armero (Udinese)
4. (CB) Mario Yepes (AC Milan)
5. (CB) Cristian Zapata (Villareal)
6. (DM) Carlos Sanchez (Valenciennes)
7. (RW) Elkin Soto (Mainz)
8. (DM) Freddy Guarin (Inter Milan)
9. (FW) Radamel Falcao (Ath Madrid)
10. (AM) James Rodriguez (Porto)
11. (LW) Guillermo Cuadrado (Lecce)
I believe David Ospina provides the team with security and reliability in goal. At full-back I would play Armero and Zuñiga as they are experienced, pacey players who are also excellent in possession. In the centre of defence I would combine the speed and strength of Zapata with the presence, composure and heading ability of Mario Yepes. I would play the defensive midfield duo of Freddy Guarin and Carlos Sanchez. Both players provide a strong physical presence in heart of the midfield, as well as good technique on the ball. Furthermore, if Guarin plays alongside Sanchez, then he would be able to break from midfield to support attacks. Cuadrado and Soto are both excellent athletes who can play box to box, and beat full backs for pace. James Rodriguez can organise the midfielder from the number 10 position, and supply passes for the lightening quick pair. In attack I would choose Radamel Falcao, who has provided a constant threat throughout his career. He will provide the focal-point for attacks and provide the majority of the teams goals.