By Mary Milliken
CUIABA, Brazil, June 20 (Reuters) - Colombia coach Jose Pekerman is a thin man who has endured the lean years that inevitably come with a life devoted to soccer.
When the Argentine's playing years ended due to a knee injury in the late 1970s, he supported himself with odd jobs, like driving a taxi.
Now he has pulled Colombia's national team out of a long fallow period at the World Cup, leading them to their first finals since 1998 and securing a place in the last 16 after two of their three Group C matches.
Even in the high times, he talks about the country's pain during the long World Cup drought as if it were his own.
"After many years of frustration, we have given satisfaction to the public, who have great passion for football," said Pekerman on Thursday after Colombia's thrilling 2-1 win over Ivory Coast.
"It's been very painful missing out on this event."
Boasting one of the most fervent fan bases of the tournament, Colombia kicked off their fifth World Cup finals with a 3-0 win over Greece, their biggest victory at a World Cup and one of their most convincing performances.
The promising start in Brazil is a redemption of sorts for the 64-year-old man of Ukrainian Jewish descent and modest upbringing in north-eastern Argentina who developed his penchant for attacking football as a midfielder with Argentinos Juniors, the club in Buenos Aires that discovered Diego Maradona.
Although he has had his share of success, Pekerman's career has also been marked by disappointment, such as a two-year stint as coach of the Argentina team that went to the 2006 World Cup and lost to hosts Germany in the quarter-finals.
Pekerman made his name as coach of the Argentina Under-20 teams who won world titles in 1995, 1997 and 2001.
With his penchant for grooming young players, he played a pivotal but easily overlooked role in making sure the young Lionel Messi played for Argentina rather than Spain and gave him his World Cup debut in 2006.
However, a blot on his copybook was the decision not to send Messi on as a substitute in the Berlin quarter-final. He promptly resigned after Argentina were eliminated on penalties.
After a fairly subdued period with coaching jobs in the Mexican league, Pekerman received in 2012 an offer for the top job in Colombia, a country he knew well from playing half his career as a midfielder for Independiente Medellin.
The turnaround was swift as Pekerman placed faith in the talented squad's attacking instincts and most notably in Radamel Falcao, the top scorer in the qualifiers who is not in Brazil due to injury.
Qualifying in second place in South America behind Argentina was enough for President Juan Manuel Santos to offer Pekerman Colombian citizenship whenever he wants it.
Although Pekerman could not contain his happiness with the six points after Thursday, he talked about what lay ahead with his characteristic calm and measured tone. Colombia meet a struggling Japan next Tuesday in Cuiaba.
"In the World Cup, every match is a battle," he said. "We hope to keep growing. We have many young players in our squad and this will be really good for them to gain experience."
(Additional reporting by Rex Gowar/Peter Murphy in Bogota, editing by Ed Osmond)