Few in South America would dispute that Colombia are contenders for one of the direct qualifying berths for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. By the same token, few believe it will be a straightforward journey, even if there is optimism surrounding a promising group of young internationals who are gaining valuable experience in some of the world’s best leagues.

Colombia’s early exit from the 2011 Copa America, where they fell to Peru in the quarter-finals, and the abrupt departures of previous coaches Hernan Gomez and Leonel Alvarez clearly took their toll. However, the appointment of Argentinian Jose Pekerman as head coach appears to have brought a measure of stability to Los Cafeteros, and with it some noticeable signs of improvement.

One clear indicator was the team’s 2-0 friendly win over Mexico in early March in what was Pekerman’s first game in charge. An even more recent one is their standing in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. With a jump of eight places, Colombia have risen to 23rd place, their highest position since October 2008, when they occupied the same slot.

That said, they are still some way short of their best ever ranking, the fourth place they held in December 1996 and again between April and May 2002. Equally, they are a good distance from the 54th place they slumped to in June 2011, their lowest ranking to date. The team can also draw encouragement from having remained in the top 40 for the last ten months.

Brazil the target
Colombia’s first three results in the qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014 have been mixed, from a winning start away to Bolivia (2-1) and a disappointing draw in Barranquilla to Venezuela (1-1),  to a narrow home defeat against Argentina (2-1). It was this inconsistency that ultimately led to the departure of Alvarez and his replacement by Pekerman, who achieved remarkable success with Argentina’s youth teams before leading the seniors to the quarter-finals of Germany 2006.

“He did a great job with Argentina,” veteran Colombia defender Mario Yepes told FIFA.com in February. “He has the quality and the experience to achieve something big with us. I think that, as an Argentinian, he’ll be under less pressure from the media and fans. Things will be calmer for him in Colombia than back home. I hope he’ll be able to lead us to the next World Cup and I’m really optimistic that he will,” added the respected centre-back, one of those expected to nurture and advise the younger squad members.

Next up for Colombia on the road to Brazil are tough away fixtures in June against Peru and Ecuador, both direct rivals for a FIFA World Cup berth despite being lower placed in the Ranking (34th and 37th respectively). And while the overriding objective is a return to FIFA’s flagship event for the first time since France 1998, two good results in June could edge them closer to a top-ten place, something they have not managed since occupying ninth spot in June 2009.