With no Israel or Jewish players in Brazil, Colombian manager Jose Pekerman is the sole Jewish representative in the World Cup. Pekerman’s tournament began in Belo Horizonte on Saturday when Colombia defeated Greece 3-0 in the opening match of Group C. With matches to follow against Japan and Ivory Coast, Pekerman, 65, will likely be out of a job if he cannot lead his team to the Round of 16 from what is considered the weakest group in the opening stage.
At present, the Argentinean-born Pekerman is a popular personality in Colombia. He took over a team in January 2012 that was struggling in the opening matches of the World Cup qualifying campaign. A shrewd tactician, he re-energized the team and turned around the results for Colombia to reach its first World Cup finals since 1998. The day after Colombia drew 3-3 with Chile to qualify for Brazil, Pekerman was granted Colombian citizenship as a symbol of gratitude of the Colombian people.
But soccer fans have short memories, and Pekerman will be uncomfortably aware that Colombian captain Andre Escobar was shot dead by an irate fan after returning home because he scored an own goal in the 1994 World Cup finals.
Pekerman’s grandparents immigrated to Argentina from Ukraine. He grew up in the Entre Rios province where his first taste of soccer was with the local Mar del Plata Maccabi club. He enjoyed a professional career as a midfielder with Argentinos Juniors and then in Colombia with Independiente Medellin. Forced to retire early due to a knee injury, he turned to coaching and his first job was with Colo Colo in Chile.
Returning to Argentina, he became the coach of the under-20 national team, winning the FIFA World Youth Championship three times: in 1995, 1997 and 2001. Despite major public pressure for Pekerman to be promoted to the national team, he was overlooked time and again by Argentine FA President Julio Grondona, who had once gone on record as saying that Jews have no place in soccer because “Jews don’t like it when it gets rough.”
Charged with anti-Semitism, Grondona eventually relented, and in 2004, Pekerman’s big opportunity came when he was appointed Argentina national team manager. With high expectations in the 2006 finals, Argentina lost to host side and eventual winner Germany in the quarter finals. Pekerman took the defeat hard and resigned amid criticism about his defensive substitutions when Argentina led 1-0. The team conceded a late goal and lost on penalties.
Although Pekerman owns a home in the fashionable Jewish neighborhood of Villa Crespo in Buenos Aires, he leads an assimilated existence. However, he once nearly worked in Israel, having been shortlisted for the Beitar Jerusalem coaching job when Arcadi Gaydamak owned the team. He is a shy man and very little is known about his personal life.
After six years in the wilderness managing Mexican club sides, Pekerman has returned to the world stage with Colombia. Nobody expects Colombia to go past the Round of 16, especially without their biggest star Monaco striker Radamel Falcao who is injured. So if Pekerman can take the underdog Colombians further than that, he may be offered more attractive jobs for next season.