Yepes: It’s wide open in South America

We asked him to be honest and he duly obliged. „Yes, you suffer. In fact, you suffer a bit more as a fan,“ he said with a chuckle. It has been quite some time since Mario Yepes, who hung up his boots just over a year ago, last pulled on the Colombia shirt, yet the long-time Cafeteros captain continues to keep close tabs on his former team-mates. „I’ve still got a lot of friends in the national-team squad, so I stay in the loop. I’m always wishing them the best and sending them positive energy.“

Yepes ran the full gamut of emotions during his 16-year international career, from the heartbreak of three near misses in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying to the joy of being involved in the Cafeteros‘ two biggest achievements: their triumph at the 2001 Copa America and their fifth-place finish at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Who better than him, then, to analyse the situation in which Colombia find themselves on the road to Russia 2018?

„It’s not going to be easy,“ the erstwhile defender told FIFA.com about the prospects for Jose Pekerman’s charges, who currently lie sixth – outside the qualification spots – with six matchdays to go in the South American preliminary competition. „But, then again, it’s not going to be easy for any of the other countries in contention either. It’s wide open, in the sense that any of us could still qualify, and very tight, because there aren’t many points in it, which is good from Colombia’s perspective.“

Indeed, just two points separate the sixth-placed Colombians from Ecuador in third. „On the next matchday some of the teams around us face off, which gives us the opportunity to climb back into the qualification spots,“ said Yepes, looking ahead to the enticing fixtures on 23 March, when table-topping Brazil are away to second-placed Uruguay, fifth-placed Argentina host Chile, the side directly above them, and Ecuador visit seventh-placed Paraguay.

Colombia will be looking to capitalise by beating Bolivia in Barranquilla and then follow that up by coming back from the always challenging trip to Quito with a good result. Yepes is convinced that a revitalised Radamel Falcao, who has been back to something approaching his brilliant best in recent months, could play a big role in this effort: „Falcao’s good form definitely could be key. We’re all hoping that he is firing on all cylinders, but that doesn’t just go for him. Hopefully all the lads will be, because those two games are going to be very important.“

On the other side
Yepes spoke with candour, yet calmly – with the selfsame coolness that he used to channel when thwarting opposition attackers and which he is now tasked with displaying on the touchline. The 41-year-old started doing his coaching badges back when he was at AC Milan and his role at the helm of Deportivo Cali, the club where he cut his teeth as a player, allows him to reduce his footballing withdrawal symptoms to the bare minimum. „However hard you work, it’s never going to be the same,“ he nevertheless admits.

„You’re close to the pitch, to the dressing room, to the things you experienced before, but it’s never going to be the same as playing,“ he went on earnestly. „You’ll never stop missing it and thinking back to your playing career, but life is made up of different stages and no one can stop the march of time,“ he added, breaking into a laugh.

More laughter followed when we asked him to name his biggest influences as a burgeoning coach: „I was lucky enough to work and learn from a great many coaches. In some cases I learnt what to do, and in others I learnt what not to.“

What is clear, though, is that Yepes is now able to put himself in his old bosses‘ shoes: „Now that I’m on this side of the equation, I probably do understand them better, although by the latter stages of my playing career I’d already begun to understand the decisions taken by each of my coaches.“

For example, the pivotal call made by Reinaldo Rueda when Yepes was a fresh-faced youngster: „Honestly, at the time I didn’t take it very well. I wanted to keep playing up front!“ That’s right: the man nicknamed the Marshal (El Mariscal) because of his dominance in his own box and organisational skills actually started out at the other end of the pitch, as a goalscorer, before Rueda moved him into defence. „I think he saw things more clearly than I did back then, and based on that I had the career I did…“ reflected the former centre-back, before signing off playfully: „Anyway, we don’t know what would’ve happened if I’d carried on as a forward. No one will ever know.“

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