Peru in the 1970s: the genius of Cubillas, a team of legends, and an era of tragedy

Peru in the 1970s: the genius of Cubillas, a team of legends, and an era of tragedy

The 1970 World Cup finals are often cited as the birth of modern football. It was the first World Cup to be filmed for a colour television audience and the first real-time trans-Atlantic World Cup from a European perspective. It was the also first distant finals that armchair viewers could see unfold live in their living rooms. Delayed videotape footage of games from Chile in 1962 had been the only way to see the action from the last World Cup to be played out in the Americas. These tapes were couriered back to London and in the main would only be broadcast three days after the on-pitch events had been played out.

But 1970 was very different, with its shimmering and hazy colour pictures dancing and flickering into view on late-night television all the way from Mexico. The wonderful crackling audio accompaniment of commentators who sounded like they were broadcasting from the surface of the moon added to the overall effect. Mexico 70 to this day remains the most iconic and evocative of all World Cups.

The tournament was special, very special, but instead of marking the beginning of something new, it was instead a celebration, a carnival that brought the end of a footballing era. A sporting supernova was to all intents and purposes in progress. The technical advances of colour television and live satellite broadcasts, which were able to bring live coverage of football matches being contested more than 5,000 miles away, to the comfort of your own home, came just in time to record the zenith of old-world football.

The bridge between the 1970 and 1974 World Cups saw arguably the biggest sea change in the history of the sport. Aesthetically and tactically, the whole sport shifted seismically between Mexico 1970 and West Germany 1974. The former offered a bewitching beauty and artistry of the ball that was embraced by most of its participants. While beauty in football didn’t disappear beyond Mexico 70, it was certainly given a more cynical ride. Every World Cup had had its pantomime villain, but after 1970 the concept of stopping superior opponents at all costs, rather than competing with them in an open and attacking manner, became much more widespread. It almost became an art form in itself.

The finals were understandably synonymous with the great Brazilian side that went on to lift, and indeed keep, the Jules Rimet trophy. Pelé, Jairzinho, Rivellino, Carlos Alberto, Gérson and Tostão all trip off the tongue with rapid ease. Images of goals of substance and even misses of exuberant style are scorched into memory, even for those of us that weren’t around at the time and have only seen them retrospectively.

However, Mexico 70 had more than one story to tell. It had the Italy of Gigi Riva, Gianni Rivera and Roberto Boninsegna; it boasted the Italy of the classic 4-3 semi-final win against West Germany, with a strapped-up Franz Beckenbauer with his dislocated shoulder and the lethal goalscoring talents of Gerd Müller. This was the West Germany of the quarter-final fightback from 2-0 down against reigning champions England to win 3-2, a result that harvested a four-and-a-half decade-old inferiority complex for the English.

Mexico 70 didn’t stop there. The self-destructing England had their story to tell, with arguably a better set of players than they’d had when winning the World Cup on home soil four years earlier. The group game against Brazil holds a special reverence all of its own, with that save by Gordon Banks, that tackle by Bobby Moore, and that miss by Jeff Astle. It was quite possibly the most stylish 1-0 defeat in the history of the game.

Then there is the quarter-final capitulation against West Germany, when Banks missed the game through illness and Peter Bonetti became his nation’s first World Cup scapegoat. Added to that was Sir Alf Ramsey’s substitutions of Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters at 2-0 up in a bid to conserve them for a semi-final that never came.

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Uruguay rallied after a mild scare in the group stages against Sweden to go on and reach the semi-finals, where, in their role as tormentor-in-chief to Brazil, they administered a sizeable fright to the world champions-elect. Leading 1-0 until just before half time, it wasn’t until the last 15 minutes that Brazil took numerical control. The ghosts of 1950 forever leave scar tissue on the Brazilian psyche and unease when it comes to footballing matters of a Uruguayan nature. Mexico 70 almost had it all. One thing it didn’t have, however, was Argentina. The reason it didn’t have Argentina was all due to Peru.

La Albiceleste were the biggest missing ingredient from the vivid multi-colour carnival of football that was Mexico, a tournament that they themselves had put in a bid to host. The performances and the circumstances that surrounded Peru at finals were so stylish and tragic that the absence of Argentina at the tournament doesn’t reverberate in the way it probably should, given it’s the only time Argentina hasn’t been present at a World Cup that they didn’t voluntarily withdraw from.

It was on 31 August 1969, at La Bombonera in Buenos Aires, that Peru shook off the constraints of being the habitual South American underachievers. In hostile surroundings, Peru outplayed Argentina and defied some questionable refereeing to clinch a 2-2 draw that was enough to send them to their first World Cup finals since the inaugural tournament itself in 1930.

Argentina, who had made a sluggish start to the qualifiers with back-to-back away defeats in Bolivia and Peru, had been left in a win or bust position. A contentious penalty and Peru being down to ten men wasn’t enough to help and the Roberto Challe-inspired Peru survived a late onslaught to book their place in Mexico.

The joy of reaching Mexico 70 was unconfined. It was also born from the tragic events of the Estádio Nacional disaster just five years earlier when at least 328 people died, primarily due to a crush on the stairwells of the stadium as spectators tried to make their exit amidst scenes of panic caused by tear-gas being fired into the crowd after a pitch invasion during an Olympic qualifier for the Tokyo 1964 games, ironically against Argentina.

Héctor Chumpitaz was one of the players on duty who witnessed the 1964 disaster. Chumpitaz carried the memories of that day heavily, yet he would go on to be the bedrock of his national side for over a decade-and-a-half, making 105 appearances and captaining them in the vast majority of those games, not retiring until late 1981 having helped Peru clinch their place at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

In Mexico, Chumpitaz was joined not just by Challe, the hero of La Bombonera, but also by the bludgeoning presence of Hugo Sotil, a man whose personal life has been compared to that of George Best. On the pitch, he went on to win LaLiga alongside Johan Cruyff at Barcelona in 1974.

Chumpitaz, Challe and Sotil offered Peru a very talented axis to build a side around, yet they were blessed further by the skills of the remarkable Teófilo Cubillas, the man widely seen as his country’s greatest player. Cubillas was the catalyst that made 1970s Peru such a dangerous proposition.

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By the mid-70s, Peru were arguably South America’s most free-flowing side, as Brazil morphed from the carefree aura of Mexico 70 to the more European-styled side they fielded in West Germany four years later. In Mexico, Peru were coached by the double World Cup-winning Brazilian midfielder Didi, who happily advocated freedom of expression from his players.

The people of Peru had had to wait four decades to see their national team return to the World Cup. They’d been denied the chance to see their first great side compete at the postponed 1942 finals, a tournament where Peru, as the then-reigning champions of South America, would have been amongst the favourites to lift the trophy itself. The nation waited with bated breath as the day of the big kick-off finally arrived.

The 1970 World Cup finals begun on 31 May at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City when 107,000 spectators witnessed an opening game goalless draw between the hosts Mexico and the Soviet Union. Peru were still two days away from their first game. Within a few short hours of the first ball being kicked in anger at the tournament, news filtered through to the Peru squad that a devastating earthquake had struck their nation in the coastal area of Chimbote.

With lines of communication to home broken, Peru’s participation in the tournament came into question. The effects of the earthquake had been felt in Lima, some 400 miles away from the epicentre itself. No-one in the Peru squad was certain of the safety of loved ones back home. A decision whether to play or not was agonised over for 24 hours, until the need for national pride in a time of tragedy over-rode the desire to race home. The death toll of the earthquake eventually rose to approximately 70,000.

On 2 June, Peru took to the pitch in a sluggish and weighted manner at the Estadio Nou Camp in León against Bulgaria. With their minds understandably elsewhere, Peru found themselves trailing 2-0 with 50 minutes on the clock. When Hristo Bonev struck the second of those two goals, however, something clicked in the Peruvian squad. Sotil climbed from the bench and the outlook of the game and tournament changed for Peru; 23 minutes later, they were leading 3-2. Alberto Gallardo struck first before Chumpitaz equalised. Peru were on level terms within six minutes of Bulgaria going 2-0 up. Cubillas netted the winner and a legend was born.

Four days later, Peru again made heavy weather of the early exchanges of their next game. The magnitude of the disaster in Chimbote was now clear and it seemed to tell in Peru’s first-half performance against Morocco. Something again clicked during the second period as Peru scored three times within a ten-minute spell just beyond the hour mark. Two strikes from Cubillas sandwiched one from Challe. The result, combined with a West German win against Bulgaria, meant Peru had made the quarter-finals with a game to spare.

On 10 June, Peru were again slow out of the blocks, this time in the group decider against West Germany. However, they were made to pay for it as a Müller hat-trick in under 40 minutes left Peru with an uphill struggle to get back into the game. Cubillas pulled one back before half time and Peru put in a better second-half performance, but the game panned out to a 3-1 defeat that meant Peru would head to Guadalajara to face Brazil in the last eight.

On Sunday that week, Peru went head-to-head with the rhapsody in yellow, white and blue that was Brazil at Mexico 70. Peru stood in the middle of the ring and traded blows with their illustrious opponents. Brazil shot into a two-goal lead in just 15 minutes thanks to Rivellino and Tostão, but the underdogs wouldn’t buckle. Gallardo pulled one back to make it 2-1, the scoreline that would be carried into the second half. Tostão struck his second of the match to give the Seleção a two-goal advantage again shortly after the restart, only for Cubillas to make in 3-2 with 20 minutes left to play. When Jairzinho netted the fourth goal for Brazil, it finally broke Peru’s resistance.

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Peru exited the tournament with a combination of sadness, relief and pride. They brought some much-needed joy to a nation on its knees in the devastating wake of a natural disaster. What they also did was create a foundation they could build upon. For Peru, Mexico 70 was just the beginning, despite the setbacks of their coach Didi moving on to new challenges and missing out on the 1974 World Cup finals.

Peru, by then under the guidance of Didi’s predecessor Marcos Calderón, who held the job of Peru national coach on four separate occasions, went on to win the 1975 Copa América, inclusive of a convincing 3-1 win away against Brazil in Belo Horizonte, en route to beating Colombia in the final.

Calderón also took Peru to the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina. Playing some outstanding football during the first group stage, which they topped ahead of the Netherlands and Scotland, Cubillas plundered five goals in the process. Peru folded during the second round group stage, however, losing all three games without scoring, conceding ten, including the much-debated six they shipped against Argentina which saw the hosts through to the final ahead of Brazil.

Peru had peaked by the time the 1980s began. With their star players from Mexico 70 ageing, only Cubillas managed to hang on to make the trip to Spain for the 1982 World Cup. Holding their own for draws against Cameroon and Italy, they were simply blown away by Zbigniew Boniek and Poland.

Peru were out at the first hurdle and wouldn’t return to the World Cup until 2018, 26 years later, often denied qualification by the usual suspects from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Colombia. For a period, they were also overtaken by the emergence as a true force of the old traditional whipping boys from Ecuador. Venezuela even looked more likely to qualify for the 2014 finals during the run-in than Peru did.

The last three decades haven’t been kind to Peruvian football, though there are signs of a promising future ahead. Despite the national team labouring, they did reach the semi-finals of the 2011 Copa América, going one better this year to narrowly lose to Brazil in an entertaining final at the Maracanã after the underdogs had usurped the likes of Chile and Uruguay on their way to the showpiece event.

Perhaps this renewed ascent would’ve come sooner had it not been for the tragic Alianza Lima disaster of 1987, when an aeroplane carrying the then league leaders home from an away game in Pucallpa crashed into the sea, killing everyone on board apart from the pilot. That Alianza side was a young one, with several players tipped to form the basis of a new Peru side capable of reaching World Cups again. It was a side that was coached by Marcos Calderón, the man who lead Peru to Copa America glory in 1975. A bruised nation mourned yet again.

But beyond the tragedy and near-misses, the red sash which cuts across the pristine white Peru shirt is glowing again. With Ricard Gareca galvanised by promising talents like Luis Abram, Edison Flores, Renato Tapia and Pedro Aquino, the future looks bright for a nation that last witnessed true greatness as far back as the 1970s.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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