As Christian Cueva dribbled towards Diego Barretto’s goal, rounded the Paraguayan goalkeeper and scored Peru’s third goal in a massive 4-1 win in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, there was a sense of relief and optimism.
The victory in Asunción was Peru’s first legitimate away win in qualifying since 2004. It also pulled the team to within three points of fifth place in the table. Suddenly, the fans believed again. It has been nearly 20 years since Los Incas were fighting for a World Cup berth this late in a qualifying campaign, and for good reason.
Peru has not been a footballing juggernaut for decades. Long gone are the days of the golden generation of Teófilo Cubillas, Hugo Sotil and Héctor Chumpitaz defeating South American giants like Brazil during the glory days of the 1970s.
However, the country has produced some quality players since that generation retired. Nolberto Solano was a mainstay in the Premier League, Roberto Palacios became (and still is) Peru’s all-time leader in appearances, Claudio Pizarro is the highest-scoring foreigner in Bundesliga history and Paolo Guerrero is the national team’s all-time top scorer.
Peru’s major issue is that they have not contained a squad with a handful of star players like Solano, Palacios, Pizarro and Guerrero simultaneously. As a result, Peru has not reached a World Cup since 1982. They were close in 1998 but narrowly missed out on goal difference to fierce rivals Chile. Peru was also minutes away from the tournament in 1986, until Ricardo Gareca struck in the 81st minute to force a 2-2 draw for Argentina and secure their spot for Mexico 86.
Nearly 30 years to the day of that fateful qualifier, Gareca was named as the 59th coach of Peru’s national football team. It’s been nearly two years since the Argentine was hired, but he has given Peruvians a reason to believe that they can watch their team at a World Cup in the near future.
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It took a significant amount of time for Peru to reach this point and several factors have played a role in the national team’s misfortune over the years. The Alianza Lima air disaster in 1987 killed 16 players and several members of the coaching staff, including legendary coach Marcos Calderón, who won the 1975 Copa América with the national team.
Politics, a declining economy and mass terrorism also played a part in the national team’s and domestic league’s downfall. When the military coup began in 1968, a leftist general – Juan Velasco Alvarado – took control of the country. He immediately forced all American and foreign companies to depart, nationalised the oil industry and placed a restriction on imported products. This meant that all food, beverages and even foreign services like coaches and players were restricted.
Some of the reforms were successful, but the economy collapsed and Velasco’s health began to deteriorate. He was eventually ousted and replaced by the right-wing general Francisco Morales Bermúdez in 1975. Morales Bermúdez’s takeover was a disaster. Hyperinflation contributed to an even worse economic state and rendered the currency almost worthless. Not even a return to democracy under Fernando Belaúnde or Alan García in the 1980s proved to be successful.
The Peruvian clubs, like everyone else, suffered immensely. The state of the economy was so poor that the Estadio Nacional wasn’t properly maintained. Even the bathrooms and changing rooms were filthy. The big teams like Universitario, Alianza Lima and Sporting Cristal were still responsible for producing the majority of the national team players, but without the financial power, the academies weren’t golden like they were in the 1960s and 1970s.
Finally, Peru slowly got back on its feet after the election of Alberto Fujimori in 1990. Fujimori introduced the Nuevo sol, raised the minimum wage, restored the economy and put an end to the rampant terrorism. This led to more stability and safety.
It’s no surprise that the current generation of Peruvian players were born after 1990. Pedro Gallese, Raúl Ruidíaz, Edison Flores and many others are regulars with the national team and their clubs abroad. In fact, 13 of the 23 call-ups for November’s World Cup qualifiers were developed by the big three’s academies.
Developing the players is only one side of the story. The Peruvian Primera División is nowhere near the level of Argentina, Brazil, or even Chile and Colombia. Peru is also notoriously quick to fire managers. Sergio Markarián tenure from 2010 to 2013 is the longest in the team’s history. While it wasn’t an issue in the 1970s, Calderón and Didi had a set system and knew their preferred squads.
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Gareca seems to have a core group of players, a preferred starting line-up and a system that garners the most out of the squad. This has led to a number of monumental achievements. Despite only having four months to prepare for the 2015 Copa América, Peru reached the semi-finals, but an early red card to Carlos Zambrano proved costly in a narrow 2-1 loss.
Nearly four months later, Peru had a shot at redemption in World Cup qualifying against Chile in Lima. However, poor discipline proved to be the hosts’ downfall once again as Cueva received a red card for throwing the ball at Marcelo Díaz’s head. Just like the Copa América semis, Peru were resilient and led 2-1 with 10 men. In the end, they lost 4-3.
By the time the March 2016 qualifiers ended, Peru had just four points after six games. The Copa América Centenario presented a great opportunity for Gareca, who called up a squad with 12 players under the age of 25. The average age of the team was 25.7 years. Six represented Universitario and Sporting Cristal. One of La U’s prominent attackers, Ruidíaz, scored the decisive – albeit controversial – winning goal against Brazil that sent Peru to the quarter-finals. The youthful team was eventually eliminated in the quarters after a 4-2 loss in a penalty shootout to Colombia.
However, Gareca’s willingness to start the likes of Ruidíaz, Flores and Renato Tapia was a step in the right direction. Peru had more fluidity going forward. The defensive grit and counter-attacking system was still useful, but unlike previous teams, this one was able to unlock defences with pace and by playing the ball on the ground. There was more tactical versatility.
Discipline also improved. Cueva’s red card against Chile in October 2015 was the last time a Peruvian was sent off in a competitive game. Encouraged by what he saw at Copa América, Gareca continued to call up the younger players and pushed out the older generation of Pizarro and Carlos Lobatón.
Results were still disappointing as Peru lost 2-0 to Bolivia in September, but followed it up with a huge 2-1 win over Ecuador at home. A 2-2 draw with Argentina in Lima and a slim 2-1 defeat to Chile in Santiago essentially ended the squad’s hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
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Then Gareca’s side was handed a lifeline. FIFA ruled that Bolivia fielded an ineligible player, 33-year-old defender Nelson Cabrera, and awarded 3-0 wins to Peru and Chile as a result. It left the Peruvians five points away from the top five in the table.
The historic 4-1 win in Asunción meant that a victory over Tite’s Brazil would potentially leave Peru in a tie for fifth place with six qualifiers remaining. It was set to be a difficult test as Tite had won all five of his games since taking over the Seleção. In addition, the Brazilians were unbeaten in qualifying against the Peruvians.
However, Peru contained Neymar and shut down the Brazilian attack throughout the first half. The hosts even had a few chances to convert through Christian Ramos and André Carrillo, but Brazil were ultimately more clinical as Gabriel Jesus and Renato Augusto converted in the second half to secure a 2-0 win for the visitors.
Despite the loss, Peruvians should feel proud of their team’s performances in November. They earned a 4-1 win on the road after conceding the first goal and La Blanquirroja asked questions of Brazil that it hadn’t faced up to that match. “It was a great game,” said Tite after the match. “Peru had great confidence. It was a bold and aggressive team. They were strong in the second half, but ended up slipping. Our team just had better chances [in the second half]. It was a difficult match.”
The Copa Libertadores-winning coach also singled out Gareca and praised his work with the national team after nearly two years in charge. “I was worried at the beginning of the game because Peru had their chances and Peru were superior. They have great energy and play well, which is a result of Gareca’s work.”
Peru are still five points away from qualifying, but a record of three wins, one draw and two losses post-Copa América should be viewed as a positive step. Even if the team comes up short in its quest for the 2018 World Cup, it is poised to make a run during qualifying for Qatar 2022. The younger players are improving with every appearance and are making strides at clubs abroad.
Ruidíaz was signed by Morelia in Mexico and finished the Liga MX Apertura as the joint-leading scorer with 11 goals. Pedro Gallese recently moved to Tiburones Rojos de Veracruz after Copa Centenario and established himself as one of the top goalkeepers in Liga MX. Edison Flores, Ruidíaz’s former team-mate at Universitario, is now at AaB in Denmark. Cueva is a starter for São Paulo and has seven goals in 22 appearances. Tapia, 21, is not a regular at Feyenoord, but his steady improvement could lead to more minutes with the Eredivisie giants.
The only question that remains is if Gareca will stay with Peru. Guerrero was asked if the federation should keep El Tigre as coach, and he had no hesitation in his voice when he answered: “Yes, yes, yes,” said an enthused Guerrero. “They should analyse how he changed the team. The aggressiveness, the comfort … Each player was playing with more intensity. The group was stronger, aggressive and it was all positive.
“It’s fantastic to work with Gareca. He’s a great guy. As a coach, tactician, he is someone who is always open for dialogue. He really understands the players and it gives us a lot of confidence. It motivates us way before the games. He was a player and understands how it is. We really like that.”
Not only does Gareca have the support of the players, it seems like the federation is fond of him as the former striker claims that the FPF is working on reforms to improve the domestic league. “Through the federation, its intent to change many things for the future of the domestic league,” said Gareca. “We have to deal with certain issues that hurt Peruvian football. We have to improve a lot of things so that the level of play is higher and let the coaches work, so that the teams have more input. This is what the federation is going through right now. We hope to have a significant improvement next season.
“This is the time to ask for everything. Let’s hope that these changes are dealt with at the right time. Let’s perform better in the games, get better fields, and that the schedule gives us optimal break.”
Gareca’s influence on the pitch, in training and within the federation has led to massive changes over the past 19 months. Extending his contract is a necessity if Peru wants to return to greatness.
By Peter Galindo. Follow @GalindoPW