BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) — Jose Pekerman is a coach whose loyalties are equally divided between Colombia and Argentina.
When the 64-year-old Argentine took charge of Colombia in 2012, many were suspicious of the country's first foreign coach in more than three decades. But he has since won over Colombians' hearts, guiding the national team to its first World Cup since 1998.
Pekerman has a long history with Colombia, where he ended his playing career with Independiente Medellin and where his eldest daughter was born.
"I feel very comfortable, very Colombian," Pekerman said Friday on the eve of Colombia's Group C opener against Greece at Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte. "There's a previous history that united me (to Colombia). With the help of this group of players, we have been able to get along very well."
But Pekerman is probably best known for his time as Argentina coach when he gave Lionel Messi his international debut in 2005, calling the forward "a blessing" at the time. He led Argentina to the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals against Germany and previously coached the country's youth teams to victories at international tournaments.
Pekerman, who resigned as Argentina coach after the team was knocked out on penalties by Germany, was criticized for leaving Messi on the bench for the match and making a defensive substitution.
On Friday, Pekerman reflected on watching Messi mature in Argentina's youth sides and then selecting him to be in the senior team so that Spain couldn't call him up beforehand.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Pekerman said. "I'm very happy about what he has accomplished. I never doubted that the big star of the coming years was appearing."
Now, the coach believes Messi is ready to lead Argentina to another World Cup victory.
"I always dreamed that he was going to be what he turned out to be," Pekerman said. "Those first steps were unforgettable. Without doubt, he can lead Argentina together with the rest of the team to a new World Cup title. As a leading footballer, it's fundamental that this happens."
If both Colombia and Argentina win their groups and keep advancing in the tournament, there is a theoretical possibility of a World Cup final between the two countries.
It's something Pekerman would like to see happen despite his divided loyalties.
"That means the two teams have done well and made it to the end," he said.