Teófilo Cubillas: Peru’s mercurial hero in triumph and tragedy

Teófilo Cubillas: Peru’s mercurial hero in triumph and tragedy

Illustration by Federico Manasse

Few footballers are remembered for one moment of genius quite like Teófilo Cubillas is for his impudent, outside-of-the-boot free-kick against Scotland at the 1978 World Cup. It is testament to its conventionality-defying innovation, and sheer audacity, that goals of its kind have seldom been seen since.

It is hard to overestimate the impact that Cubillas’ impossibly cheeky free-kick made on a public mostly unfamiliar with these Peruvians’ magical South American skill. The midfielder had already run the Scottish defence ragged, setting up César Cueto who cut the lead established by Joe Jordan’s opener. Cubillas then proceeded to score two astonishing, almost identical, goals.

On 70 minutes, he gave Peru the lead with a trademark effort with the outside of his right boot. Six minutes later, from a free-kick on the very same spot, he repeated the trick. The position of the ball called for a curler with the right instep. Cubillas, counter-intuitively, curled the ball – as calling it a dink would see only to describing the ingenious act inaccurately – with the outside of his boot, around the Scottish wall and past the flailing Alan Rough.

The watching world swooned and, just like that, Cubillas became an overnight sensation. At least he would have been had he not already been a sensation for well over a decade.

El Nene, the kid, had debuted for his hometown club Alianza Lima at 16, and topped the Peruvian league scoring charts in 1966 and 1970, before international acclaim arrived at his feet during what is considered by many to be the greatest World Cup of them all: Mexico 1970.

Cubillas in character, his socks pulled down and, as ever, foregoing shin pads, scored in all three group matches; the winning goal in a 3-2 win over Bulgaria, two in the 3-0 defeat of Morocco, and the consolation as Peru went down 3-1 to the Gerd Müller-inspired, eventual semi-finalists, West Germany. At times, Cubillas seemed to be exclusively caressing the ball with the outside of his right foot, often to devastating effects.

Against Pelé and his collaborators in the quarter-final, Cubillas gave as good as he got. Trailing 3-1, he scored Peru’s second on 70 minutes to raise hopes of a comeback before the magical Brazilians wrapped up the match with a fourth.

Original Series  |  The 50

In one of the most individually star-studded World Cups of all, Cubillas was chosen as the tournament’s best young player and Peru, who had charmed the watching audience, claimed the Fair Play Trophy.

Cubillas was also named South America’s Player of the Year in 1972 and 12 months later joined Basel in Switzerland for £97,000. It was to be a short-lived affair and, after just six months, he joined Porto for more than double the fee. His best was still to come.

Having failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, Peru and Cubillas righted that particular wrong by winning the 1975 Copa América, only the second title in their history. The star man only scored once, in the semi-final first leg against Brazil, but was instrumental in Peru’s playoff final win against Colombia. Unsurprisingly, Cubillas was named Player of the Tournament.

After winning the Portuguese Cup in 1977, he rejoined Alianza and won the Peruvian title twice before moving on to Fort Lauderdale Strikers for five years, as the NASL’s light shone brightly, though fleetingly, across the continent. But it was Cubillas’ heroics with Peru that cemented his reputation as his country’s greatest footballer, and never was he more devastating than at the 1978 World Cup.

After his destruction of Scotland, he scored a hat-trick against Iran, the last of which proved to be his final international goal, as Peru topped their group. Sadly, the second round saw his team lose all three matches; 3-0 to Brazil, 1-0 to Poland and, infamously, 6-0 to Argentina, prompting allegations of bribery by the Brazilians who missed out on a place in the final to the host nation because of the margin of Argentina’s victory.

In every sense, 1978 was as good as it got for Peru and Cubillas. The country placed 12th in the FIFA rankings, its highest ever, following the World Cup. Four years later in Spain, Cubillas played in all three group matches as Peru exited the World Cup in the group stage.

To this day, Cubillas remains Peru’s all-time leading scorer with 26 goals. It is tempting to wonder what impact Cubillas, at 26, would have had on the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. But perhaps his greatest gift to his countrymen did not come in the iconic white with red diagonal jersey. On 8 December 1987, a plane carrying the Alianza Lima players and staff crashed in the Pacific Ocean while returning home from an away fixture, tragically killing everyone on board. Cubillas, at 38, returned for his fourth spell at the club to play for his team for free. In tragedy, just as he had throughout more joyous times, Cubillas emerged as Peru’s greatest hero 

Writer  |  Ali Khaled  

Editor  |  Will Sharp  

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