WERDER BREMEN WERE IN TROUBLE. Viktor Skrypnyk’s side was only one point above the relegation zone entering the winter break during the 2015-16 Bundesliga season. Thankfully, Bremen managed to pick up a win and a draw from their first three matches of the New Year. The storied club was five points away from the bottom two, but remained in 16th place heading into March.
Suddenly, Bremen began the great escape. Following a 2-2 draw with Darmstadt at the end of the February, the Green-Whites rattled off three wins in their next four matches, scoring 12 goals in that span. Claudio Pizarro, who is now pushing 40, was responsible for half of those goals. He even recorded a hat-trick in a 4-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen.
Pizarro returned to the north-west of Germany that season for his third stint with the team. He had seven goals prior to Bremen’s four-game unbeaten streak, finished the campaign with 14 and kept his club in the top flight. It was a productive year considering the forward was, and still is, the oldest outfield player in the league.
This season has not been as kind to Pizarro. Serge Gnabry, Fin Bartels and Max Kruse have played in the bulk of Bremen’s matches. Bartels, the oldest of the trio, is eight years younger than the Peruvian. Gnabry was just four-years-old when the veteran striker joined Bremen for his first spell in 1999.
Injuries have taken their toll on Pizarro, especially this year. He’s dealt with muscle-related issues for most of the campaign and has missed 11 games as a result. The 38-year-old was also battling adductor and abdominal pain last season during his renaissance. He isn’t even earning call-ups to Ricardo Gareca’s Peru squad these days as the Argentine coach has leant on a more youthful squad.
Pizarro’s best days may be behind him and his career is winding down, but he will always be a legend to Bundesliga fans. He’s the highest-scoring foreigner in league history with 190 goals and was a key figure for both Bremen and Bayern Munich.
The Callao native won several trophies with Bayern, including a European Cup and six Bundesliga titles. He also guided Bremen to a UEFA Cup final in 2009, scoring in every round leading to the final in Istanbul. Pizarro then helped the River Islanders qualify for the Champions League group stage in 2010 with two goals in the playoff versus Sampdoria, including an extra-time winner in the second leg.
Pizarro has scored a number of important goals and has been a loyal servant for two of Germany’s biggest clubs for 17 seasons. This is why the Anden-Bomber will never be forgotten.
Peruvians are aware of his exploits and will always view him as a pioneer of sorts, but there will always be a what if? asked by fans of the Blanquirroja. Pizarro and his former Bayern team-mate Paolo Guerrero are two of Peru’s most successful strikers, however, it is Guerrero who is the most revered between the two.
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It is not an absurd opinion; Guerrero is Peru’s all-time leading scorer and his last name – warrior – suits his personality. The Flamengo striker has an incredible work ethic and has proudly represented his country when the national team has called him.
Pizarro will retire as one of Peru’s most decorated players having won 19 major trophies. However, a period of indiscipline from 2006 to 2009 is what hinders his reputation in his home country.
Trouble was brewing after Pizarro was caught driving under the influence twice in a 10-month span in 2006. The second offence occurred in the final week of September when the Peruvian was en route to Bayern’s Oktoberfest celebrations. His blood alcohol level was at 0.11 and the legal limit in Germany is 0.05. The club ultimately fined Pizarro, but coach Felix Magath did not impose a suspension.
Pizarro’s issues continued in October during a pair of matches with the national team. Before leaving for international duty, the striker informed the Peruvian federation that Bayern requested him to play just one of the two games. The FPF claimed the Bundesliga giants did not make any contact, so it assumed this was a tactic created by his agent Carlos Delgado.
As a result, Pizarro was benched and, due to an ongoing feud with his coach, he refused to play for the national team until Navarro left the job. The manager was eventually relieved of his duties a few months later and order was restored, but the controversy off the pitch had yet to reach its boiling point.
Following a 1-1 draw with Brazil in a World Cup qualifier back in November 2007, a few Peruvian players decided to celebrate the result. Pizarro, Jefferson Farfán, Santiago Acasiete and Andrés Mendoza threw a party. Just three days later, Peru faced Ecuador in Quito and were humbled 5-1. Mendoza scored the only goal for Los Incas.
The federation had clear orders for the players to avoid parties while on international duty. The FPF considered the FIFA windows to be of great importance and did not want the players to lose focus. As a result, all four players were suspended indefinitely, but Pizarro pled his innocence. He was “surprised” by the sanctions and vowed to file an appeal to CAS.
Unfortunately for Peru, Pizarro did not earn another appearance for two years. He eventually won his appeal and returned to the fold in 2011. The national team recorded just three wins from the next 17 competitive matches without their star striker. La Blanquirroja lost six games in a row to finish the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign in that span. The decline in form cost José del Solar his job and led to the appointment of Uruguayan coach Sergio Markarián, which coincided with Pizarro’s return.
The former Alianza Lima striker has only scored seven goals in 30 appearances since his hiatus ended. However, Markarián, Pablo Bencgoechea and Ricardo Gareca have urged Pizarro and Guerrero to form a partnership, which has proven to be unsuccessful. Both forwards are tall and commanding players who need space to roam. Pizarro was also on the wrong side of 30 and slowing down when they experimented with the tactic.
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In recent matches, Gareca has relied on a younger and pacier attack with Guerrero as the target man. As a result, Pizarro has been phased out over the past year to make way for the next generation. However, when he earned call-ups prior to Copa América Centenario, there were noticeable changes in Pizarro’s physique.
Pizarro stopped consuming alcohol and went on a strict diet when he returned to Bremen. Renowned Italian nutritionist Guiliano Poser, who was used by Lionel Messi, has transformed the Peruvian’s game.
Despite Pizarro’s age, he dropped four kilos without losing any muscle mass. His new diet does not include milk products, white flour, potatoes and tomatoes. The seasoned striker looked more mobile, which caught Gareca’s attention.
Unfortunately for Pizarro, he is in the twilight of his career, which means his legacy has become a heavily discussed topic. In Germany, he is regarded as a trailblazer and one of the best foreign strikers of all-time. In Peru, his alleged involvement in the notorious post-match celebrations has divided loyalties.
Some believe that Pizarro failed to live up to his club form when he represented his nation. It’s a rather unfair point of view when comparing the strength of the Bayern and Bremen squads in years past to Peru’s teams. The Bundesliga sides allowed Pizarro to drop deep or to operate as a poacher. They had other attackers involved in the build-up play and controlled the tempo of matches.
This was seldom the case with Peru. The team usually absorbed pressure before attempting to launch counter-attacks. Pizarro was often isolated and was marked heavily. Even with Farfán and other mobile forwards on the pitch, the attack was too inconsistent.
Even with Guerrero on the pitch at the same time, Peru did not have the strength in quality to compete with the likes of Brazil and Argentina. Expecting one or two players to make a difference in the toughest confederation with a never-ending coaching carousel is an unrealistic request.
It’s highly unlikely that Pizarro will be playing by the time the World Cup in Russia begins. However, a lack of international success should not define one of Peru’s greatest exports. He was, after all, a player who was highly coveted by the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund before he ultimately joined Bayern in 2001. Superclubs don’t come calling for everyone – they want the very best.
As Pizarro recovers from yet another injury, he and Bremen find themselves in a familiar situation. They will likely fight to the very end of the season to stay in the Bundesliga as they stare at relegation again. The talismanic Peruvian could retire as a hero, but the feelings may not be mutual across the Atlantic.
By Peter Galindo @GalindoPW