Jose Pekerman is yet to lose any of the nine World Cup matches he has experienced as a manager. Nevertheless, one of those games remains a more painful memory than any defeat of his coaching career.
Pekerman’s Colombia have won all four of their games in this World Cup, moving them to the quarter-finals of a tournament that has eerie parallels with the 64-year-old’s experience in 2006, when he was head coach of his native Argentina.
Then—with a 19-year-old Lionel Messi in the squad but still some way from becoming the all-consuming star he is today—Pekerman fashioned an Albiceleste side of pace, power and steel, one most casual observers believed to be the most impressive in the tournament as the knockout stages came around.
Much like his Colombia team eight years later, Argentina breezed through the groups—beating the Ivory Coast (2-1) and Serbia & Montenegro (6-0) before drawing with Netherlands (0-0) in a game where both sides had already qualified.
Argentina then beat Mexico, after extra-time, to book a quarter-final match against the hosts Germany. In that game, Argentina led again, before Pekerman’s tactical decision to withdraw the tiring playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme for the more defensive Esteban Cambiasso backfired horribly.
Germany seized the initiative, grabbed an equaliser and then won the game on penalties.
Pekerman, distraught, resigned after the game.
"This has come to an end and I will certainly not go on," he said. "I'm very sorry for the coaches and the fans and the players, this team deserves to go further but we couldn't make it."
Eight years on, in an almost identical situation, Pekerman has the chance to face his darkest day. For Colombia, so good for so much of this tournament, beating Brazil may ultimately hinge on how Pekerman responds to the flow of the game—how he reacts if his side take a late lead, for example.
That, as much as the individual brilliance of James Rodriguez, could prove the difference in what might be the most eagerly anticipated meeting of the tournament to date.
One of the two other coaches with World Cup experience still in the competition will be in the dugout across from Pekerman on Friday. Luis Felipe Scolari guided Brazil to glory in 2002, and then took Portugal to the semi-finals four years later.
Now he has back in charge of the Selecao, tasked with delivering the home victory many Brazilians expect.
If Pekerman has proven capable of delivering proactive, attacking sides capable of scoring goals almost at will, Scolari’s calling card in recent years has been his unwavering pragmatism. Such is Brazil’s desperation to win on home soil that they were willing to set aside their love for “joga bonito”, something they knew Scolari would set aside.
As expected, his side has lacked a certain finesse and invention this summer but it has been effective, and that is ultimately what Scolari has been employed to do.
“I believe if you can’t play beautifully and win, you need to play in another way,” Scolari told the New York Times last year. “You need to play ugly.
“For me, playing beautifully and winning is great but playing beautifully and losing is horrible. Whoever says the opposite is an idiot.”
Pekerman, who eight years ago attempted to revert to playing ugly and ending up losing, may suggest there are even worse feelings to be experienced. But Scolari, who may have got a glimpse at the emotions that await if Brazil do fail to win this tournament during the penalty shootout win over Chile, perhaps does not need telling.
The remaining six managers left in the competition cover a wide spectrum of experiences and approaches. Like his team, Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto is in unchartered territory, having failed to even qualify for the 2010 World Cup during a brief stint as Colombia coach.
Yet, under his guidance, Los Ticos have proven a well-organised and determined bunch, with the resolve and ability to leave countries including England, Italy and Greece by the wayside.
Marc Wilmots, too, is relatively new to this, having endured mediocre stints with Schalke 04 and Sint-Truiden before taking on the Belgium job, for whom he represented at an impressive four World Cups (although he did not actually play in 1990).
Unlike Pinto, Wilmots has struggled to fashion a cohesive unit from his collection of vaunted stars, although that has not stopped results from being more than acceptable. And he has still seen his reputation grow considerably in Brazil, as his substitutions have changed the course of all four of Belgium’s games to date.
That ability, if he has control over it, can be a handy weapon in the knockout stages—as the United States found out to their cost.
He will meet Argentina’s coach, Alejandro Sabella—a man of similar playing pedigree. Unlike Wilmots, the perception of Sabella has turned towards the negative over the course of this tournament, with reports growing that he is merely a front-man for Lionel Messi, who now carries the power to decide on matters like tactics and personnel within the Albiceleste camp.
Sabella, who once played for Sheffield United, spent most of his coaching career as assistant to Daniel Passarella, who managed Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. Now, after proving his managerial credentials in a two-year spell with Estudiantes de la Planta, he is in charge himself.
Then there is the all-European meeting between Germany and France, which pits Joachim Low and Didier Deschamps against one another. Low, a somewhat nomadic player and manager, served as assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann for Germany at the 2006 World Cup, succeeding the famous striker as the national team boss after the tournament.
He took Die Mannschaft to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, as they replicated the third-place finish of four years prior. With three international tournaments now under his belt (including a final run at the 2008 European Championships), this stage should not hold too many surprises for him.
Deschamps, meanwhile, enjoyed a formidable career as a player—winning the 1998 World Cup as part of a fabled France side. Having gone on to manage Monaco, Juventus and Olympique Marseille in an up-and-down managerial career, he has been praised for his work in uniting a French side that infamously fell apart four years ago.
It looked like they would again not so long ago, when they failed to qualify automatically for the tournament and then went 2-0 down after the first leg of the play-off with Ukraine.
But they roared back with a 3-0 win in Paris, and have moved from strength-to-strength since.
With a powerful midfield comprising the likes of Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi, Deschamps has seemed to take a simpler approach with his side, avoiding the temptation to over-think selections and allowing his many young charges to express themselves without pressure.
“I never refer to what I was or what I went through; they know it already,” Deschamps told L’Equipe (per the New York Times) recently. “They have the possibility to create their own story and to transform their own existence.”
If coaching can make a pivotal difference at this stage of the competition, however, then it is perhaps Netherlands who will go into the quarter-finals with the most cause for optimism.
Louis van Gaal was brought down to earth by his last taste of international football, as he failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup in his previous tenure with the Oranje, but this time around he has seemingly found the redemption that Pekerman is still seeking.
A pre-tournament switch to a 3-5-2-1 system (with wing-backs and three centre-backs) has paid off handsomely for a squad some feared was not strong enough to even get out of the group, while some late tactical changes against Mexico enabled the Dutch to come from behind to win the last-16 match.
"Did you see what I did?" Van Gaal, never one to doubt his own brilliance, told reporters (per Sky Sports) after that Mexico turnaround. "I first changed to a 4-3-3 and then we created a lot of opportunities with a shot on the post and a fantastic save.
"Then I moved to plan B and yes, I did that in the cooling break. That is a clever way of benefiting from these breaks.
"It's a big compliment that my players picked up on it immediately.”
Such tactical pragmatism is a great weapon, if wielded correctly. If that, along with experience, are the two keys to success at this stage of the World Cup, then it will be the Dutch and Brazilians contesting the final on July 12.
But football is rarely so straightforward—as this World Cup has only served to remind us.