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Few people here were surprised when Marcelo Bielsa resigned this month as Argentina's national football coach. He never enjoyed high popular appeal, though supporters had become slightly more tolerant with him after he led Argentina to second place in the Copa America in July and to the Olympic gold medal in Athens. Notwithstanding, Bielsa departed saying he was tired and lacked the necessary energy for the job.
He has been replaced, however, by fan-favourite Jose Pekerman. Relatively unknown ten years ago, today most people believe Pekerman will be able to give the national team a lot of the flair it lacked during Bielsa's six years and, indeed, during Daniel Passarella's four years before that.
A talented but underachieving player in the 1970s, Pekerman never made it into a big Argentine club side. He played for Argentinos Juniors, then moved on to Colombia and Interpendiente of Medellin, where was injured and retired in his late 20s. He took jobs, such as a taxi driver and door-to-door salesman to survive, before coaching youth teams for fifteen years; this was first at Argentinos Juniors and then in Chile at Colo Colo. While at Argentinos he stood-in briefly (for two matches, both lost) as first team coach in what was his only coaching experience at a professional level.
In 1994, however, he presented a proposal to the Argentine football association, which won him the job of national youth team coach.
It was here that he earned the respect of his countrymen. He won a record three Under-20 world championships, in 1995, 1997 and 2001. All these teams played attractive football, defended superbly and showed plenty of stamina, the basic requirements Argentines demand of their football teams. The national youth squads moved from relative obscurity to becoming the talk of the nation, their games appearing on live television and the players winning fame in some without even playing professionally. And, strangely for Argentine sides, Fifa awarded them the Fair Play prize every time they won the World Cup.
The common belief here now is that Pekerman can give the national side the same spirit he gave to his former youth teams.
Under Bielsa Argentina seemed more concerned in out-running rivals and getting to the opposite penalty zone as fast as possible, than in entertainment and a flowing passing game.
Bielsa stuck rigidly to his chosen line-ups, rarely varying his preferred 3-4-3, even when Argentina were in the process of getting knocked-out of the 2002 World
Pekerman, on the other hand, has proven several times that he can change systems according to his needs. Also his teams are known for seeking efficiency without neglecting aesthetics.
The question remains whether or not he will be able to adapt to working with professionals and having shorter periods of time for his squads to practice.
In 1998 he was offered the senior position for the first time, but declined, arguing his lack of experience at profesional level. He recommended Bielsa instead and became general manager, basically an administrative job. In 2002 he declined the position again and also resigned as general manager.
Now he suggests that his years as manager of the younger squads have given him some of the experience he lacked in the past, as did his spell as general manager of Spanish second division side Leganés last season.
He has the advantage that most of the stars of the moment are players he coached in the past. And those he coached tend to respect and admire him.
This may produce a change of names, giving several players, such as striker Javier Saviola and playmaker Roman Riquelme, opportunities they rarely had.
More experienced footballers, such as Juan Veron or Hernan Crespo, meanwhile, might find he shows less tolerance for mediocre performances than they have been used to in the past..
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