Colombia are just 90 minutes away from reaching the FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finals for the first time in their history, a hallowed objective that not even Carlos Valderrama’s golden generation could achieve back in the 1990s.
Excitement is high in the Cafetero camp following their progress through the group phase, though they will not have it easy in the Round of 16 as old rivals Uruguay, who have long proved a stumbling block for the Colombians, stand in their way.
The man they hope will steer them through Saturday’s stern examination at the Maracana is coach Jose Pekerman, the architect of their impressive rise to prominence. With the Argentinian in the dugout, Colombia have lost just three times in 26 matches and go into their make-or-break tie unbeaten in their last ten outings, though their most recent reverse came against La Celeste.
Ahead of what promises to be a thrilling duel, FIFA spoke exclusively to Pekerman, who has now racked up the second-highest number of appearances by a coach in FIFA competitions. Fielding our questions, he spoke about the expectations Colombia’s superb form is generating and the chances of his side overcoming their bogey team and making history.
FIFA: Brazil 2014 has been a huge success for Colombia so far. Had you been expecting things to go so well?
Jose Pekerman: We knew we were shaping up well, that we were heading in the right direction, but we also knew that the World Cup is a unique competition, that the pressure is different here. We couldn’t predict how we were going to perform, but getting through the group phase has given us hope because we’ve overcome every challenge so far.
Three wins, nine goals, group winners: has that record created more expectation now, especially among the fans?
Yes, of course, and you’d expect that among the fans. They’ve been very frustrated with the team in the past, so now is a chance for them to enjoy what’s happening and be happy. We’ve exceeded expectations and that’s a big achievement in itself because pre-tournament predictions don’t often prove to be right. But we need to tread carefully and be aware that every game from now on will be harder than the last, because only the best teams are left in the competition.
The best thing is to strike a balance between the confidence we have in what we’re doing and the awareness that every game can be different. We need to do our talking on the pitch and not boast about how well we’re playing. We’re also aware that Uruguay came out of a very tight situation to reach the last 16. They came back from an unexpected defeat to Costa Rica and beat England and Italy, showing once again just how strong they are. We have to be ready.
Let’s talk about the head-to-heads between Uruguay and Colombia.
We played them twice in the recent qualifiers and had two very different results. Colombia played superb football to win the first of those matches 4-0, and in the second we faced a Uruguay side with their backs to the wall. It was a very tight game, unlike the previous one, and they showed us what they are made of, winning 2-0. So you could say that we’re all square at the moment. If you look back, Uruguay have beaten us a lot more times than we have them (18 wins for La Celeste and 11 wins for Los Cafeteros) so they’ve always been very tough rivals for Colombia. This is the time for us to find out if we can change the course of history in a huge game in which there is a lot at stake.
There’s a lot of talk about Uruguay being Colombia’s bogey team. Is that another cause for concern?
No. Sport’s full of myths like that because there are always certain characteristics that we associate with teams, like their attitude and the style of football they play. That’s the way it is. Sometimes teams win simply because of their style. There are a lot of examples of that in football, like Italy versus Germany or Italy versus England. In Colombia’s case, we have to accept that history is not on our side, though there’s always the chance that you can turn it around, and we hope that it’s our turn to beat them this time. We know we’re coming up against a very tough rival, but I’m confident we can do it.
Colombia are an enterprising side, while Uruguay have lost their leading striker, which means they’ll probably play a more defensive game now. With two such different styles, what is your gameplan going to be?
There is no question that they’re different styles, because Colombia have always put more of an accent on technique and playing attractive, entertaining football, while Uruguay have a reputation for putting together solid teams with very hardworking players. They defend very well and make the absolute most of the chances they get. And when they put the national team jersey on, they almost feel invincible. It’s those differences that make this such a great game. It almost takes you back to the classic debate on what’s the best way to win. The answer is that there are lots of ways of winning. The teams we’ve seen winning the World Cup before have done so by playing very different types of football, and that where the appeal of the game lies.