How Colombia Has Been Built into a Serious World Cup Contender

Christopher AtkinsContributor IApril 4, 2013

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 29: Radamel Falcao Garcia #9 is congratulated by Aquivaldo Mosquera #22 and Luis Amaranto Perea #14 of Colombia after scoring a goal in the first half against Mexico on February 29, 2012 during an International friendly at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

When Colombia beat Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires in 1993, it was supposed to be the result that signaled the arrival of Los Cafeteros as an elite footballing side.

The nation headed into the 1994 World Cup in the USA full of confidence that their Carlos Valderrama-inspired side could achieve success.

Sadly, though, the pressure proved too much for the team to handle, and the side crashed out of the tournament with just one victory from their three group stage fixtures.

It was a result that left the country reeling, with the aftermath and assassination of defender Andres Escobar leaving deep scars on football in the country. Colombia's deep issues with narcotrafficking throughout the 1990s also did little to help the situation.

Now, though, it appears that the South American nation may be finding their feet once more as a footballing power. It is, though, largely thanks to the work of an Argentine coach.

When Jose Pekerman took control of the Colombian national team at the start of 2012, few could have imagined the speed at which he would change the outlook of football in the country.

Winless in their opening two home qualification fixtures for the 2014 World Cup, it looked like Colombia may be set for disappointment once more. Pekerman, though, has turned the side's fortunes around, with the side well on course to reach the finals.

Pekerman arrived with a considerable reputation, having guided Argentina's Under-20 side to three World Cup titles and overseen the development of the likes of Pablo Sorín, Juan Román Riquelme and Pablo Aimar in his six years in charge.

His senior level Argentina side at the 2006 World Cup was also heralded as being one of the best footballing sides on show until a surprise elimination on penalties to Germany.

On arrival in Colombia, he reverted to the default formation of much of South American football: 4-2-2-2. Since then, he has established a settled unit of players who look set to take the team to next year's tournament.

In many respects, Pekerman has been fortunate. He has arrived as manager at a time when Colombia is producing talent with a regularity missing in recent years. However, given his past record of guiding young players, there could be few people better suited to integrating such players.

With limited resources at senior level for the moment, though, he has formed an effective team unit. In certain positions, the team is blessed with high quality players, but Pekerman has also made a fine job of blending less heralded players into important roles.

Defensive midfielder Erwin Valencia of Fluminense has been preferred to the more heralded Carlos Sanchez, for example, while Inter Milan's Freddy Guarin is being kept out of the team by domestic-based Macnelly Torres.

Up front, meanwhile, Teofilo Gutierrez is also seen as a better fit to the side than Porto's free-scoring forward Jackson Martinez.

Pekerman is making bold calls in choosing players depending on their fit in the team's system, avoiding the frequent mistake committed by international managers in picking players based on reputation.

The result is a team of players who are well suited to the roles in which they are being picked. At the same time, the likes of Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Pablo Armero add real quality to the side.

Colombia have had that quality in their ranks for a few years and, at the 2011 Copa America, were one of the standout teams of the early stages. Pekerman, though, has given the side belief in their abilities and adjusted the side to give greater protection to what is an ageing central defensive unit.

With members of the victorious Under-20 side from January's South American championship no doubt set to come into the side ahead of the World Cup next year, there should be more young talent on show.

That younger generation should be headed by Pescara attacking midfielder Juan Fernando Quintero, who has the potential to reach the very top of the game.

Colombia are highly unlikely to win the 2014 World Cup, but they will likely surprise many with their showing.

Los Cafeteros have become a highly effective unit over the past twelve months and, with a greater familiarity of the Brazilian conditions than most, they stand a good chance of going far in the competition.