Back from the brink: Peru and the rebirth of a South American footballing great

Jonathan Liew
Back from the brink: Peru and the rebirth of a South American footballing great

In June 1969 General Juan Velasco, the military dictator of Peru, gave a famous speech in Lima. The previous year he had seized power in a bloodless coup, promising to revolutionise the country’s ailing economy, nationalise foreign businesses and restore social justice. Over the following years, the country would be brought to its knees by debt, unrest, food shortages and increasing authoritarianism.

But all that was still to come. As he addressed the nation on television to announce a series of sweeping agrarian reforms, Velasco still fancied himself as an emancipator, a man who would stand up for the downtrodden against the vested interest, for the ordinary Peruvian against the foreign power, for the poor against the rich. “Peasant!” he cried. “The master will no longer feed off your poverty!”

A couple of months later, Peru’s national football team travelled to Argentina to play a crucial World Cup qualifier at the Bombonera in Buenos Aires. Peru had not qualified for a World Cup since the very first in 1930; Argentina had never failed to qualify. But they needed a win.

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In a screeching, hostile atmosphere, with increasingly irate Argentina fans hurling objects at them, Peru hung on for a 2-2 draw that sent them to Mexico and eliminated Argentina.

Nor was it a fluke. Under their Brazilian coach Didi, a veteran of the 1958 and 1962 triumphs, they played an attractive 4-2-4 style, spurred by the greatest generation of players in its history. The following year, 1970, they would reach the quarter-finals in Mexico, losing only to that masterful Brazil team. Two years later, Universitario became the first Peruvian team to reach the Copa Libertadores final. Three years after that, they won the Copa America. Three years after that, they qualified for the World Cup again, beating Scotland and drawing with Holland on the way to the third round.

“Peru has let new light and hope into the darkened world of professional football,” wrote the great Brian Glanville. And for a few fleeting years, Peru’s footballers really did embody the national pride and underdog spirit that General Velasco had promised. The peasants of South American football had shown the masters how to do it.

Almost half a century after that famous match in Buenos Aires, Peru return to La Bombonera with qualification for next year’s finals in Russia still in their hands. As it stands, they hold the fourth and last automatic qualification place in their grasp. Argentina, their opponents, are currently fifth and heading for a play-off.

For Peru, a country that has often found it hard to believe in itself, it is difficult to shake the sense that history is repeating. In 1985, they had another chance to eliminate Argentina from the World Cup. With nine minutes remaining, they were 2-1 up. Maradona’s Mexico miracle might never have happened. Somehow, in a game Maradona would later describe as the most fearful he had ever felt on a football pitch, Ricardo Gareca smashed the ball in to claim the point that took Argentina to the finals.

Peru have not qualified since, and by a quirk of fate Gareca is now their coach. On taking the job in 2015, Gareca has made it his mission to transform not simply Peru’s football, but its mentality: a heady cocktail of two parts fatalism, one part screeching angst. One of his first moves was to introduce a psychologist to help his players cope with the unique pressure of representing a country with such unrequited weight of expectation.

The results speak for themselves. Successive wins over Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador (in Quito’s lung-sapping altitude) have put them on the brink. This is a young side of few stars, most of whom play their football in Peru’s Primera Division. Watford’s Andre Carrillo is their only English-based player. Jefferson Farfan, perhaps better known as the most underwhelming 84-rated player in Fifa history, is now a seasoned veteran of 32.

And so naturally, they will start as second favourites against Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala and the rest. “They have players of superlative level,” said Gareca this week. “But we will go out determined to take a win, because that is our mentality.”

It has not always been the mentality, of course. Peru have messed things up before. Defeat would pile the pressure on to beat Colombia in their final game, and even then they would probably have to rely on a play-off against New Zealand. “Peruvians have to be calm,” insisted Gareca, the man who broke Peruvian hearts all those years ago. “We are at our best time, emotionally and from a football standpoint. We are ready.”

Even if they ultimately fall short, there are reasons for optimism. The 5,000 fans making the trip to Buenos Aires go not in fear, but in hope. Peru may never stand alongside the continent’s giants. They may never surpass Brazil or Argentina. But in a way, they have conquered their biggest opponents: themselves.