Soccer-Colombia's coach tips Messi-led Argentina for cup


By Andrew Cawthorne

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil, June 13 (Reuters) - Colombia coach Jose Pekerman, who gave forward Lionel Messi his international debut for Argentina in 2005, said on Friday the stage may be ready for his countryman to lift the World Cup.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing when I brought Messi into the Argentina national team," Pekerman, who led Argentina at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and is now in charge of a powerful Colombia team, told reporters in Belo Horizonte.

The four-times World Player of the Year has won a glittering array of club silverware and has established himself as one of the finest footballers to grace the game, but some believe he must win the World Cup before he can be hailed as a true great.

"I never doubted he was the rising star, I always dreamed he was going to be what he has become," Pekerman added, smiling at the memories. "Those first steps are unforgettable. Without doubt, he and the team can give Argentina another World Cup."

Pekerman's much-admired Argentina side reached the quarter-finals in 2006 but lost on penalties to Germany - after which he resigned. Controversially, Pekerman substituted midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme and kept Messi on the bench for that match.

"Some people just remember when he (Messi) didn't come on against Germany and they forget the other part," said the now 64-year-old coach. He was instrumental in ensuring Messi played for Argentina when he was also being wooed by Spain, where he has lived since joining Barcelona's youth setup.

"I'm very happy for everything Lionel has done."

Pekerman took charge of a senior international side again in January 2012 after Colombia had made a poor start to the qualifiers. He triggered a turnaround and Colombia came second in the gruelling South American qualifiers.

With such history for both nations, Pekerman said he was praying Argentina and Colombia do not meet, at least until July 13. "I hope we don't face each other, unless it's in the final - that is what we want!"

The grey-haired Pekerman, who played nearly half his career in Colombia as a midfielder for Independiente Medellin, said he did not feel split loyalties despite his strong home links.

"I feel very comfortable with Colombia, there's lots of history," he said, before a training session at the Mineirao stadium where Colombia open against Greece in Group C on Saturday. (editing by Justin Palmer)

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