No one has had a bigger influence on the Colombian national team than Francisco Maturana. A defender in his playing days, Pacho embarked on his highly successful coaching career in 1986 and led Colombia to the FIFA World Cup™ finals in 1990 and 1994 before masterminding the nation’s one and only Copa America triumph in 2001.
Another highlight of a career in which he has also taken charge of Costa Rica, Peru and Ecuador came in 1989, when he steered Atletico Nacional to Copa Libertadores glory, another first for Colombian football.
An esteemed member of FIFA’s Football Committee, Maturana remains an authority on Colombian football and gave FIFA.com the benefit of his wisdom in an extensive interview, the first part of which appears below. In it he discussed what the immediate future might hold for his national side, sized up the chances of South America’s representatives at Brazil 2014 and grappled with an age-old question: what is good football?
FIFA.com: Colombia have finally made their return to the FIFA World Cup, something the country has been waiting for since 1998. Can you give us your view on Jose Pekerman’s side?
Right now I’d say there’s a little bit of uncertainty around the team. Putting results to one side, I think there’s been a question mark hanging over Colombia’s true potential. We’ve now got a generation that’s reached a pretty high standard, with all of the players fighting for trophies in major leagues. They’ve got a coach with them – or above them – who knows how to lead the team and a group of officials who’ve created an environment in which the players have been able to express themselves. The thing is, I don’t see any continuity in the way that they express themselves.
What do you mean by that?
I mean playing well one day and then doing it again the next. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. You can play good football and lose a game. But you just lose that one. As long as you play well, with a definite idea in your head, you’re going to win most of your games. But when you sit there and rely on individuals to win the game for you, then it just becomes a game of chance.
That begs the question: what is playing good football?
The answer’s very simple. (Cesar) Menotti said it back in the day. People recognise good football when they see it. When you put it like that I don’t think anyone can argue about it. It’s simple! There are games when you lose and people still applaud. People know when you play well. They’re not stupid. You play for the people.
Turning back to Colombia now and their continuity, there was a big turnaround in the team’s fortunes from the moment that Jose Pekerman took over. How important is the coach in the overall scheme of things?
Football is all about moments. Look at (Radamel) Falcao. I’d sit there watching Atletico Madrid matches and say: “Give it to Falcao. Give it to Falcao, because everything he touches turns to goal.” And then in the Copa America a couple of years ago Falcao had the chance to put Colombia through to the next round from the penalty spot and he missed. How did that change happen? It was time. Time determines everything, as does the man who oversees the whole development process. Football’s about the players, even if it’s the coaches who are responsible for planning how they win.
Do you think Falcao is Colombia’s most influential footballer since the 1990s?
(Pauses) These are the things that make football such a great sport to talk about. During the Copa America I read something that Menotti said. He’s an authority in the game and someone I have complete respect and admiration for. He said: ‘Colombia are going to come back because they’ve got (Fredy) Guarin’. And turns out he was right. He didn’t have that maturity back then, but you can see what he’s become now. One player who I feel always does well for Colombia is (Camilo) Zuniga. He’s important for them. You can have all the possession you want but if you don’t have the full-backs bombing forward, then you’ve got nowhere to go, you just fade away. He’s important to the way the team sets itself up.
When I look at the campaign the most important player to my mind was (David) Ospina because he stood tall when he had to. And then there are the attacking players. When Colombia play well it’s Teofilo (Gutierrez) who has the key. And when things get tangled up (Juan) Cuadrado can take your breath away. And the balance that (Carlos) Sanchez provides is vital too. When you look at it like that, I don’t see how anyone can say, ‘He’s the most important player’. I don’t agree with that. Every player has their moments.
What about James Rodriguez and the character he brings in the No10 jersey?
He’s got great touch, pace and the ability to go one way or the other. He’s not afraid to try things. James brings a touch of class to Colombia’s game.
Let’s talk about Brazil 2014. Which South American side has the best chance of success?
I want to be consistent. The best team in the Americas were Uruguay. They were fourth at the last World Cup and they proved that was no fluke by coming back and winning the Copa America. They had a bad spell in the qualifiers but that doesn’t mean to say they’ve become a worse team. You can’t rule Uruguay out. They’ve got the same players with three years’ more experience under their belts and with a very clear idea of that they’re doing. You can’t disrespect Argentina either, though I don’t think we’ve seen the real them. How could you not respect a team that’s got the best player in the world? They’ll have to decide on the best way of supporting him, but you can’t discount Argentina. As for Colombia, I hope they hit some good form and maintain it. One day they’re fine but you never know how they’re going to be the next.
Which brings the conversation back to those moments you were talking about.
The world remembers big things like Colombia in 1994. Going into that World Cup we played something like 24 games and won the lot. But then we went and lost the wrong game at the finals. And it’s not something that’s unique to Colombia. If you look at the last few years perhaps the best footballing side in the Americas was Marcelo Bielsa’s Argentina. They were out of this world. They were everyone’s big favourites for the World Cup in 2002 and they went and got knocked out in the first round. And it wasn’t because they got too big for themselves or they’d just got too used to winning. No, results all come down to the form the players are in at that specific moment.
You’ve mentioned the South American contenders, but what about Brazil and Neymar?
It’s not so much a case of Brazil and Neymar, but Brazil in Brazil. Diego (Maradona) said something that I essentially agree with. They’re the champions and you have to respect that, but if the final of the Confederations Cup had been played anywhere else, Spain would have won it. But there was such feeling when they sang the national anthem and the team was so close to the fans and so determined to give the country something to cheer about, that you have to respect Brazil. And that’s without taking their individual ability into account or the fact they’ve got a coach who’s won the World Cup before (Luiz Felipe Scolari) or that they’ll be playing at home. You might be there wondering where the team is, wondering if they will appear and who’ll be in it, you can be sure that they will appear in the end.