Centre-back, captain and vastly experienced at 36 years of age, Mario Yepes is a veritable pillar of strength in the Colombia national team. The AC Milan man is a symbol of dependability and continuity for team-mates and fans alike, but around him change is very much afoot.
New coach Jose Pekerman will take the Cafeteros reins for the first time in a friendly against Mexico tomorrow and, speaking to FIFA.com, Yepes welcomed the Argentinian on board before outlining what he can expect in the coming months.
Above all, Pekerman will need to learn the ropes at an accelerated pace. The former Argentina coach at both senior and U-20 level has taken over a troubled team struggling for consistency, but he has just 90 minutes to see his players in action before qualifying resumes in the South American Zone for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Appointed in January to replace Leonel Alvarez – sacked on 13 December after just three months in charge – the three-time FIFA U-20 World Cup winner will therefore be keen to observe as much as he can against a solid Mexico side in Miami, while communicating his message with maximum efficiency.
"I can assure you that Pekerman enjoys a big reputation in South America and that he always demands attractive football,” Yepes told FIFA.com, his knowledge of the Argentinian game bolstered by three years at River Plate before he crossed the Atlantic.
"Pekerman isn’t so well known in Europe because he’s only ever coached in South America,” added the former Nantes and Paris Saint-Germain stopper, who has made just six Serie A appearances for Milan this term. “When I was playing for River Plate, he was coach of Argentina’s U-20 side. Lots of the players he picked at the time were playing alongside me at River and they told me good things about him, especially his desire to play really polished and technical attacking football.”
Colombia will be hoping to produce those same qualities when they face Peru on 2 June. The game presents a chance for revenge against the side that knocked them out of the Copa America 2011 at the quarter-final stage, but, more than that, Los Cafeteros simply need the points. Sixth in the standings after losing 2-1 at home to Argentina last time out, the 2001 South American champions are already up against it on the road to Brazil. Clearly, time is clearly not a luxury Pekerman enjoys, but Yepes is confident that Colombia will soon feel the benefits of appointing the man who led La Albiceleste to the last eight at Germany 2006.
“He did a good job with Argentina,” explained the man who was first capped in 1999 – the year River Plate snapped him up from Deportivo Cali. “He has the quality and the experience to do something 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.”
Youngsters leave Yepes upbeat
Much of that optimism stems from Yepes’s faith in his younger team-mates. The most-capped player in the Colombia ranks since Ivan Cordoba fell off the radar, the Rossoneri veteran is ideally placed to follow the progress of his fellow Colombians proving their worth in Serie A.
“Several internationals such as Juan Camilo Zuniga and Pablo Armero are at clubs in Italy and they’ve been revelations in the league,” he said, singling out the Napoli winger and left-sided Udinese player for special praise. “That shows the talent we’ve got.
"The immense majority of the squad plays in Europe and that’s a first for us. From what I can recall during my time as an international, I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many. Colombian players are leaving younger and younger for Europe and that allows us to have internationals already used to playing at the highest level.”
The immediate question is whether they will be able to apply those lessons learned against a Mexico side “on a good run of results and used to playing attractive football”, according to Yepes. Time will tell how quickly Pekerman takes to his new surroundings, and Yepes admitted he is still in the dark as to what role he can expect to fulfil as the new era begins.
“I don’t know anything right now because this will be my first squad get-together with him. But I hope I’ll be able to bring my experience to the squad as it’s relatively young and needs some of that.”
Given that youthful edge and the new coach’s proven pedigree in leading young players to glory, Pekerman could also soon be seen as a perfect fit.