The foreboding remnants of ancient empires. World-renowned geological and architectural wonders. Richly diverse cultural legacies, both from its long-distant Andean chiefdoms and modern urban endeavours. Few ‘gap yaaaaah’ backpackers or portentous intellectual elites could resist Peru, from its nightlife in Lima to its grandiose constructs in Cuzco and nearby Machu Picchu, or even the floating Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca and the geographical contrasts between oft-disregarded stakes of both the Atacama Desert and Amazon Rainforest.
A hotbed for political fracas, social unrest and still fraught with gross economic imbalances like many other South American neighbours, however, exposure to today’s Peru could bring a stark realisation. No longer is this the Incan centrepiece, the conquistadors’ Spanish requisitioning or another revolutionary achievement of Simón Bolívar, nor largely even the treacherous 20th century conflict zone – let alone the ‘deepest, darkest’ lands popularised by Michael Bond’s famous bear. As the nation now writhes in a seminal self-image, their stage arises to proclaim new visions. Only one small issue; the chief protagonist is detained in an externally-imposed void…
For any outfit to emerge from CONMEBOL qualifiers is, famously, a supreme achievement itself in preparation for any World Cup. Very rarely has any nation stormed to the front of the pack on both this, and the next year the world, stage, and though Tite’s squad may well defy this precedent in Russia, there stands little viability of a repeat performance in Qatari qualies. Brazilian assurances aside, Peruvian aspirations had long been deprived of patriotic glory until this campaign, and the breakthrough tenure of Ricardo Gareca.
The pivot of their three-year campaign, in the notorious altitude of La Paz, arrived in curious circumstances. Only its preceding events, however, could render the ‘victory’ more emphatic. Argentina’s Gareca had only been installed ahead of the 44th Copa América and long-anticipated return to World Cup qualifying ordeals in February 2015, and in his first calendar year had achieved respectable, if lately marred, results; unveiling as the surprise package of the Copa with a third-place finish and defeats only to Brazil and hosts, and eventual victors, Chile, yet unravelling in emphatic WC qualifying defeats to these two and Colombia. Despite posting three points from an interspersing 1-0 victory over Paraguay, in the March 2016 window hope was realistically restored in the midst of André Carrillo’s eventual ten-month internal suspension during contract disputes at Sporting Lisbon and Jefferson Farfán’s injury issues after an injury-time equaliser against perennial tournament bystanders Venezuela and luckless 1-0 defeat to Uruguay. Again, a positive Copa América excursion – the Centenario, hosted in the USA for the first time – in which a first victory since 1985 over the continent’s dominatrix, spelling the end of Dunga’s Seleção reign, was followed with an unfortunate quarter-final penalty exit to Colombia, offered momentum. This time around, there was no reneging on their promise.
Not in the most appealing circumstances, granted, but the insurgency began; nothing, apparently, like a rivalry with bordering Bolivia – unfairly often construed as minnows – to offset discontent. What seemed to have ended in a hard-fought but ultimately deserved 2-0 capitulation to the in-form hosts resulted, amidst a two-month investigation privy only to the relevant FIFA panels, in Bolivian midfielder Nelson Cabrera ruled ineligible for the meeting in the first place, and the customary 3-0 awarded to Peru. Had Cabrera not entered the field as an 82nd-minute substitute, the technicality would not have arisen. The one-time Paraguayan player, however, also breached citizenship regulations – only residing in his adopted nation for four of the five years required – in a subsequent 0-0 stalemate with Chile. The Chileans had less to gain from another 3-0 bestowal from FIFA HQ, and soon Peru – a point to the good – would seize on their historic rivals’ mental fragility.
Though blissfully unaware of manic Zurich investigations, Gareca’s side demonstrated their pride in dogged, and potentially campaign-affirming, consecutive achievements in Lima. First, and only five days after their La Paz misery, came the dismissal of a stringent Ecuadorian challenge – 2-1 – before in early October the Argentines came waltzing in. Following draws in Paraguay and Venezuela and an opening day defeat to Ecuador, Albiceleste royalty was on display for this event; Dybala, Higuaín, Di María, Agüero, Mascherano, Kranevitter, Otamendi, Funes Mori, Rojo, Zabaleta and Romero. Under-fire coach Edgardo Bauzo had invested his resources entirely in this meeting, yet the vital ingredient, or at least he who would redeem himself as such in later engagements, was lacking; Lionel Messi absent through injury. The Peruvians held them to a 2-2 draw in the Andes, and the rest is very much history. As far as twelve points from an unbeaten final six matches, with impetus from a heroic comeback in Venezuela and 2-1 defeat of a star-studded Uruguay crescendoing into a final round alignment of four results in Sao Paolo, Quito, Asuncion and of course Lima, giving the side a play-off place ahead of Chile by two goals, can be regarded as a narrative deserving of succinct devaluing, that is.
Though not entirely the chief asset of their run – one of four players to bag three of more goals – Paolo Guerrero, with 69 caps and 27 goals prior to the subsequent 18 matches of qualifying, was no doubt the symbolic spearhead of their forays – ensuring a romantic event when his 75th minute free-kick against Colombia won qualification, only dampened by the official recognition of the effort as a David Ospina own-goal. There were few signs of an apparent transition into old age for the rambunctious number nine, or a potential international retirement if World Cup qualification did outlast him; playing every single minute of all but three matches, while promoted to captain in eight of the last eleven ties. As news fed through to high command in Lima of doping-related sanctions imposed by FIFA – a twelve-month ban that would result not only in absence from the pivotal inter-continental play-offs against New Zealand, but from Russia if the rest of the squad made safe passage – specifically involving traces of cocaine, before a 0-0 draw in Argentina in the nation’s penultimate qualifier, the nation was shocked to its core. How could the icon of Peru, a striker who spent the entirety of his senior career abroad but was adored for carrying patriotic spirit to Munich, Hamburg, São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, be accused of such indecency, especially given the uneasy history of doping, CONMEBOL and FIFA? ¡No es possible!
An inevitable appeal followed from the outraged Federación Peruana de Futbol (FPF), with FIFA flexible in retrospect, and perhaps with one eye on Russia, preaching sympathy in what opponents may have deemed a cynical six-month reduction, resulting in expiration on 3 May. What the FPF may not have accounted for, however, was the influence of Wada – the World Anti-Doping Agency – who had initially campaigned to extent the striker’s punishment to two years of international football, and after FIFA’s backtracking pounced. Rather than making a glorious last-minute return to the fold then, the day after the expiration of Guerrero’s ban a tribunal came to Switzerland, with his testimony, arguing for all prior sanctions to be set aside, drawing pleading crowds to Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) headquarters in Lausanne less than a fortnight before all provisional 35-man squads would have to be submitted. Eleven days after the trial began, the conclusion fell against Guerrero, much to the vitriolic dismay of FPF fans. Ultimately, the court’s controversial statement – referencing the ingestion of such banned substances through a cup of regionally habitual coca tea – read “the panel considered that the player did bear some fault or negligence, even if it was not significant, and that he could have taken some measures to prevent him from committing the ADRV (anti-doping rule violation).” Thereby, by FIFA rulings, the ban was to align with the belief of Wada, at an extent between a year and two, and ended in a 14-month ruling. Although six months of that ban have already been served, that is of scant consolation to the 34-year-old.
Either way, it is not Guerrero alone that defines Peru’s ranking as 11th, interestingly, in both FIFA and Elo-determined lists. While it is certainly true that Gareca’s tactics will be altered by the wholly unforeseeable loss – his only other genuine striker, 5 ft 5 in Raúl Ruidíaz, hardly a fitting comparison – a surely unarguable status as CONMEBOL’s fifth, or at the very least sixth, greatest present side remains. While Uruguay are yet to even progress beyond the quarter-finals of the Copa América since 2011’s edition and in the previous four World Cup qualifiers were forced to resort to the inter-continental play-off, with 2010’s semi-final placing merely a virtue of disgraced Luis Suarez duplicity, and Colombia are yet to truly deliver on the promise that a José Pékerman-trained generation including James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao, Juan Cuadrado and Carlos Bacca are beginning to relinquish when failing to exploit consecutive Brazil failures in the Copa, few could argue caveats to Peru’s reprise.
As the fallen Dunga, Bauzo, and previous Argentine incumbent Gerardo Martino, can attest, the cost of ill-performance can seldom be afforded across the politically vulnerable, but football-revolving, continent. Few would lament the FPF for lowering their barometer of success this summer, but Gareca will surely ensure the same exacting standards.
A Buenos Aires native from birth to the height of his playing, and indeed managerial, endeavours, the now-60-year-old is alone notable for his stints with four particular clubs; Boca Juniors, Vélez Sarsfield, América de Cali and Independiente. Were it not for the string of more recent playing servants appointed by boyhood club Boca and the outstanding hauls of city patriarch Carlos Bianchi at both the Xeneizes and Vélez – where Gareca was fortunate enough to return, and win three domestic titles – he could have completed a surely unprecedented act in both running and *ahem* walking out for four different clubs in playing and managerial capacities. It was, and soon appears, a poetic prophecy not to be, but securing Peru’s first place at a World Cup since 1982 seems an acceptable compromise on which to settle.
Sacrificing his own position in the eventually victorious 1986 Argentine squad – having to that point accrued 20 caps – in a tumultuous preceding season, with a vitriol-inciting short-lived move across the cultural divides from Boca to River Plate followed by a transfer to the aforementioned Colombian outfit Cali, Gareca’s career could potentially be full of regrets. He, however, was not to know the implications of an admittedly prolific, but internally unfavoured, stint in Colombia’s third largest city, or aware that a scrambled 80th minute equaliser, arriving as a substitute to bolster the ranks of Diego Maradona, Jorge Valdano, Jorge Burruchaga et al. in qualifying for the Mexico-based tournament against, ironically, Peru, would be both his last shot and appearance for his country.
Furthermore, condemning his future employers to the first of eight arduous consecutive World Cup qualification failures, Gareca’s career remains unquestionably fraught with consequential contradictions. Prior to the goal-line finish that confirmed the passage for Maradona’s eventual mastery – ‘Hand of God’ included – at stages such as the Azteca, his opponents would have anticipated a fifth finals appearance of their own. A 1-0 victory in Lima a week earlier had given the relatively stuttering Peruvians – a draw and defeat to a renewed Colombia perhaps connoting changing continental tides – the symbolic result to surely represent South America, after three appearances at the last four global meets, once again, but with the otherwise free-scoring Albiceleste in hot pursuit, only victory at the Estadio Monumental (epic both by name and nature for this occasion) would suffice. Instead, a draw left their fate in the hands of what would amount to two play-off rounds if they were to make an appearance. Offence-obsessed rivals Chile arose and deposed without mercy; 5-2 over two legs.
Los Potrillos (The Colts) symbolised the new grand ambition; a generation of Alianza Lima players, frustrated by their inability to proffer a Primera División, or more colloquially Descentralizado, title, invested in to guide a return to glory. Instead, disaster struck. Bound for a first Descentralizado trophy, they fell to the lowest ebb in the nation’s footballing heritage. On 8 December 1987, 43 people, including 33 team representatives – manager Marcos Calderón, combining responsibilities with second spell as Peru helmsman after a 1975 Copa America title and 1978 World Cup Second Round exit, all four other coaches, all four directors, eight cheerleaders, three referees, six crewmembers, one Navy official and every single one of the sixteen players that had secured a 1-0 win at Deportivo Pucallpa only hours earlier – tragically lost their lives in one of Peru’s worst ever air disasters. Just six miles from their destination – the nation’s main airport, Jorge Chávez International, in the port city of Callao – a crash into the Atlantic could not be recovered by local search and rescue teams as black-market trades had seen the day’s petrol allowance sold off. Much more than a political message, however, the event sent social shockwaves rippling not only through Peruvian streets, but also the worldwide footballing fraternity; the competitive fallout, with bitter Lima rivals Universitario de Deportes swooping in as the Descentralizado pressed on after barely a month’s hiatus, inconsequential in the inconsolable context. A deprived national team would, a first friendly meeting and 3-1 loss to Canada aside, enter international reclusion for the subsequent nine months. The once-chiming bells of patriotic fortune fell silent.
What little hope remained of emerging above world champions Argentina, 1989 Copa America victors Brazil and a Carlos Valderrama and René Higuita-inspired Colombia in forthcoming qualification phases now completely dispersed. Until the late 1990s, even regaining a foothold was challenging enough in a scene of ruthless improvement continuing around them; before Italia ’90, they lost all four matches against Uruguay and Bolivia, in an expanded system in 1994 preliminaries they again went winless from six matches against Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay, albeit salvaging some pride from a final-day draw against the latter. Along came 1998, and for CONMEBOL the abolition of the seedings and group system to be replaced with a straight round robin; Peru thrived, and were it not for a Round 17 4-0 defeat in Chile, would likely have overcome their rivals rather than be ousted on a heavy goal difference deficit, largely imposed by the rampant Iván Zamorano and Marcelo Salas for La Roja. 2002 represented another step back, however, with 14 measly goals from 18 matches ensuring they finished as lowest scorers, albeit staved from last place by Venezuela and an underwhelming Chile, and 2006 showed scarce progress while placing ninth in somewhat of a low-scoring rat race; *only* eight of nine away ties ending in defeat. 2010, once again flogged on their travels and once again lowest scorers. Their tally dropped to just 11, and unsurprisingly their result to the very wooden spoon; the ultimate ignominy of their existence after everything that had preceded this cause. Bolivia and Paraguay’s anticipated failures paved the way for some form of credible relapse ahead of the first tournament since 1978 on their own continent, but much more was required. Besides, where else was there to go from rock bottom?
A man – no mere mortal, the most famous modern Peruvian exponent – who will appreciate more than most the achievement of the nation is Claudio Pizarro. A diligent serviceman from 1999 to 2016, and at 39 years young still in club action – the sprightly whippersnapper – his 85 caps, I’m certain, would have resulted in many more than the unreasonable 20 goals he achieved had he not been hindered by wider psychological failings. The most prolific foreign player ever in the Bundesliga, and the fifth most successful goalscorer of all, with 192 strikes, Pizarro had every right to emerge as a historic icon of La Blanquirroja, yet was spurned by an unfit system. His tenure was only symptomatic, however. Over 36 years of hurt – the first decade particularly prone to visceral pangs – one can only imagine the number of players who encountered hardship without any sufficient reward, and the careers whose chief regret lay in the fate of their patriotic exploits.
At first, Peruvian football lacked this resounding focus. The sport introduced, as in many other burgeoning post-independence South American states, by British businessmen and returning Peruvian labourers as the patrons of multi-sport facilities in Callao’s ports and Lima’s backstreets had immediately profound impacts on the formative culture of the continent’s mountainous west coast. Lima Cricket and Football Club was the first club to arise, as early as 1859, and hereby claims to be the most historic institution of its kind in the entirety of the Americas. Ciclista Lima Association, Callao’s Atlético Chalaco, Alianza Lima and Cuzco’s Cienciano all followed at the turn of the 20th century and acted as mainstays of the seminal Liga Peruana from 1912, while a flurry of strongly individual outfits sprang up from north to south in the subsequent three decades. In a conflict of identities and interests that rose to the disbanding of the Liga in 1922, however, came the need for central organisation in the form of the FPF and the Primera División. An imperfect structure, certainly, at first the league saw various early casualties, but also gave birth to what would ensue as the nation’s greatest rivalry between Alianza – the elitist institution owned by two-time President, former New York insurance executive and horse racing enthusiast Augusto B. Leguía – and Universitario, representing the intellectuals of the National University of San Marcos, the Americas’ oldest established university. Their competition, alongside Chalaco, drove the national team at this stage, with involvement in the 1930 World Cup and politically conspicuous 1936 Olympics assuring their place amongst the world’s most competitive sides.
Rebuffed, seemingly to salvage some Nazi pride in the latter tournament, their 4-2 extra time victory over Austria’s much-fancied Wunderteam only a day after Germany’s 2-0 exit to Norway at the quarter-final stage was annulled after an Austrian appeal on grounds of a post-match pitch invasion – refused entry a meeting adjudicating on a replay, they ensured this match never took place as, alongside Colombia’s contingent, their protest involved leaving Germany. Though originating from colonial intervention, from this point forth South America’s relationship with European athletics committees – one healed somewhat by the foundation of the World Cup, but undermined by Jules Rimet’s decision to betray a pledge to host World Cups alternately between the two continents with the 1938 event taken to his native France, with Peru amongst ten other Americas nations to withdraw or refuse to enter qualifying – was never again to be one of inequality or prejudice. Peru was a footballing nation founded on its ties with far-travelling tradesmen, but now they stood on their own two feet.
Entering a professionalised era in 1951, their respectable performances in the South American Championships, Bolivarian Games, Pan-American Championship and Pacific Cup – albeit with victories only in the latter, certainly the most politically volatile against the despised Chileans – ensured a relatively seamless transition. As Europe predominated the post-war era, a cultural hiding the South Americans were hardly isolated from, but during which they were overcome by border disputes as opposed to ideological opposition, both the Olympics and World Cup evaded Peruvian grasps. Obdurate figures on the global stage, for all else that occurred, until Rimet’s departure from the FIFA Presidency – thus refusing to partake in 1950 and ’54 qualification campaigns – their return to the fold was rendered challenging in consecutive 2-1 aggregate defeats to Brazil and Colombia, before trailing Uruguay in 1966 preliminaries.
Ten managers had tried and failed to alter this fate since 1945. Twice a World Cup champion with Brazil, Didi – a clean-cut “Ethiopian Prince” who burst onto the post-war Brazilian scene as a long-necked midfielder with supreme offensive ability as the first exponent of the folha seca (dry leaf, or knuckleball) free-kick and the term more popularly attached to international teammate Pelé, ‘The Beautiful Game’ – arrived to remedy this. Overshadowed not only by his nation’s cultural icon but also by Alfredo Di Stéfano in a short-lived move to Real Madrid after his standout 1958 World Cup campaign, the son of Campos dos Goytacazes’ streets started his managerial career in modest circumstances with Sporting Cristal, twice winners of the Primera División but also a growing force in Lima. A Descentralizado title in his first season, and appointment at La Blanquirroja soon followed. Overcoming Argentina in qualifying and translating the relentless 4-2-4 philosophy that incorporated many of the technical assets they had long shared with their Brazilian counterparts to results in Mexico, their quarter-final departure came only at the hands of what are reasonably esteemed as the tournament’s greatest ever side; Jairzinho, Rivellino, Tostão, Carlos Alberto and, of course, kingpin Pelé leading Brazil’s charge. Didi left for lands of plenty, yet thus began the window of national opportunity.
Teófilo Cubillas, just 21 years old in Mexico, exploited titles as ‘Best Young Player’ in Mexico and 1972’s South American Footballer of the Year during a prolific young career at Alianza to burst onto the European club scene with ease; Basel and Porto, bastions of the sport, struck by the prodigiousness of Peru, revived qualities who began exporting en masse. Revenge for a replay defeat to Chile in 1973, after home and away ties could not force a result, was enacted with eventually rampant qualification success for 1978, and with the aforementioned Marcos Calderón helming the latter effort, and Brazilian Tim, in his final managerial position, assuming the mantle in 1982, outstanding rosters and tactical approaches featured heavily, but both times were left devoid of recognition. In Argentina, despite emerging victorious from a First Round group of Scotland, Iran and the Netherlands, their end to the tournament came in a 6-0 defeat to their hosts; as only a four-goal victory would suffice to reach the final, a match still dogged with accusations of bribery by the military junta. In Spain, they were consigned to humiliation with a 5-1 defeat to Poland condemning draws with Cameroon and Italy. The generation of fleet-footed, quick-witted and globally noteworthy Peruvians – a multicultural squad, with influences from the Spanish joined by Italian, East Asian and African ancestries, by historical reason or force – lay spoiled and discarded. Only when hope was crushed in ’86 and the events of 1987 cruelly amassed could the dejection of a proudly visceral land rise.
If to validate their past, Gareca’s contingent – famed wingers Farfán and Carrillo, São Paolo creative livewire Christian Cueva, Flamengo left-back Alberto Rodríguez and Aalborg flank-hugger Edison Flores serving as the eye-catching qualities while captain and centre-back Alberto Rodríguez, Orlando defensive midfielder Yoshimar Yotún and Mexican side Veracruz’s goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and defender Christian Ramos engineer proceedings – will find their task in Russia as imperative to a nation’s psyche. For so long have Peru’s constant failures, entirely dismissive of genuine worldly talents, facilitated social stagnation and typified a corrupted political structure; post-1990 Presidents Alberto Fujimori, Alejandro Toledo, Alan García and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski all fraught with various cases of bribery and moral negligence in their struggling services. In Russia, there is no shirking the ambition invested by opponents, but this is not where Peruvian fault lines lay. Global perceptions must be irked and the nation asserted as a notable force, and the vital factor here is self-confidence. Few stimuli, fortunately, could have underlined this more than Guerrero’s pejorative ruling. Granted, they have procured a World Cup spot from New Zealand and ousted Croatian and Icelandic ambition in friendlies in the meantime. A remodified system professing Farfán and Carrillo as joint marksmen cannot emulate the exploits of a nation’s record goalscorer and icon in what was intended as a fitting flourish, but it can still harness unmatched optimism. They possess support like few others, and a history of turmoil without compare. If no one is to be convinced of their cause, they will happily revert to autonomy. A winning mentality has returned. This is Peru. This is a pulse that will never relent.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!