When Jose Pekerman took over Los Cafeteros (“coffee-farmers,” a nickname for the Colombian national team) he was brought on to bandage wounded egos and soothe a club that hadn’t seen World Cup play in 15 years. This year, with Colombia advancing through the tournament for the first time in years, all eyes are on Pekerman.
Here’s what you need to know about this Argentine coach who is the Colombia’s best hope to get his team to at least the semifinals.
1. This is Not Pekerman’s First World Cup
Throughout the 2000s, while his current team stayed home, Pekerman was leading Argentina to playoff status. It was Pekerman who took Argentina to the quarterfinals in the 2006 World Cup. He had been coaching the Argentine national team since 2004, and in the qualifying matches Pekerman’s team appeared slated for greatness. They started off well enough, but Argentina’s dramatic loss to Germany that year would end in an all-out brawl on the pitch and Pekerman’s subsequent resignation.
In 2006, Pekerman’s risky tactical decisions to keep a teenage Lionel Messi on the bench and to omit Javier Zanetti led to significant controversy from which he wouldn’t—or refused to—bounce back. While Pekerman hasn’t abandoned taking game time risks, they seem to be working out for him better this year than the last time around.
2. When He First Arrived in Colombia He Was Mocked by the Media
Pekerman came into the Colombia club, balls blazing and ready to shake up a team that hadn’t seen serious action in years. After coaching Argentina to a spot in the 2006 World Cup, and with three World Youth championships under his coaching belt, Pekerman had earned a reputation for his ability to develop players’ psyche. He tends to choose players—both as part of the team and as starters—who match his coaching style, even if they are less talented than others.
These tactics initially ruffled the feathers of the Colombian press, who dubbed him the “overpriced Argentine.” It didn’t help when Colombia lost its first international game (against Venezuela) with Pekerman at the helm. Yet the past two years have proven that Pekerman has the ability to create a culture of winning in Colombia, a characteristic that had been lacking in Colombian soccer for many years.
3. Pekerman Likes to Experiment
Experimental methods with it comes to playing on the pitch may be what it takes to win. Pekerman has spent his time with Colombia thus far playing with several different player formations (specifically 3–5–2, 4–2–3–1, and 4–2–2–2; the latter being the formation he decided upon) to determine which is the best for his team and each player’s individual strengths.
Because of this experimenting, Colombia arrived in Brazil with technical flexibility and coordinated attack methods that could be tailored to meet the specific challenges of each opponent. In another show of risky on-pitch decisions, Pekerman opted to keep captain Mario Yepes in the World Cup lineup, despite that Yepes is 38 years old and has said that he’ll retire after the tournament.
4. Pekerman is the Only Jew at the Finals
Pekerman’s parents emigrated to Argentina from the Ukraine and Pekerman grew up in the largely Jewish village of Villa Dominguez in the Entre Rios Province. Pekerman got his start playing soccer in the local Maccabi youth club. After professional stints as a midfielder for the Argentina youth team and for Colombia’s Independiente Medellin, Pekerman’s career was cut short by a knee injury. He turned to coaching and his first job was with Colo Colo in Chile.
Anti-Semitism isn’t unheard of in the sport, however, and Pekerman has faced his fair share. In the early 2000s, public pressure mounted to appoint Pekerman as a coach for the Argentine national team, though he was passed over several times by the coach at the time who was quoted as saying that Jews shouldn’t play soccer because they “don’t like it when it gets rough.”
With Israel’s absence from this year’s tournament and no other Jews either playing or coaching in Brazil, Pekerman is the sole Jewish person at the 2014 World Cup.
5. He’s Into Sharing the Love
Pekerman isn’t all about the glory for himself all the time. In the late June game in which Los Cafeteros sent Japan home, Pekerman sent Faryd Mondragon in off the bench, making the 43-year-old the oldest person to ever play in a World Cup game. Mondragon broke the record that was previously held by Roger Milla of Cameroon, who played in the 1994 World Cup at age 42.
Mondragon paid homage to his limelight-sharing coach, saying that Pekerman was the reason he kept playing, that without Pekerman’s urging Mondragon would have retired two years ago. It was a tender gesture on Pekerman’s part, allowing Mondragon (who had just turned 43 a few days before) to break the record, knowing that the player was well past his prime.