One day in Cusco: when a small local team climbed the peaks of South American football

One day in Cusco: when a small local team climbed the peaks of South American football

The first thing you notice when in Cusco, Peru, is how high up you are. Not that you can see it, though. Cusco doesn’t sit perched halfway up a snowy Andean mountain peak, overlooking the valleys below. Neither is it approached by climbing up steep mountain passes.

As visitors walk through the city’s stone paved streets, winding their way towards to the central plaza, a shortness of breath comes on far quicker than would normally be the case. To those unused to being more than two miles above sea level, it can be quite a shock to the system.

At the heart of this ancient city, the Plaza de Armas is a grand, colonial square; a focal point for travellers and locals alike. The bars, shops, cafes and restaurants surrounding the plaza are a bustle of ceaseless activity as weary backpackers nurse their yellowy-green Inca Kola, or foaming Cusqueña beer, sat overlooking the square. Others run the gauntlet of a host of shoe-shiners and traders seeking to sell them an alpaca wool chullo hat, an array of knock-off Inca-themed trinkets, or perhaps even a replica of the iconic Peru national team shirt. 

Most will either be contemplating the hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu they are about to embark on or recuperating from having already done it.

The square is a delight of Spanish colonial facades which are, in turn, built on the precisely carved Inca walls which still surround what used to once be known as Haukaypata – the Great Inca Square. It is the setting for many of the city’s most important festivals and events, such as the Inca Festival of the Sun. 

On this particular day in February 2004, when I was that weary backpacker amongst a group steeling ourselves for three days atop the Andes on the Inca Trail, it was also to be the scene for a show of public support for the local football team – Cienciano. For this was to be the night they played their first ever match in the famed Copa Libertadores.  

As the large screen was being erected in the main square, there was a palpable sense of excitement amongst the locals. Anticipation of momentous occasions can be almost more rewarding than the actual event, and in Cusco on that warm, muggy summer’s day, anticipation was bubbling over many hours before the evening kick off. 

By the time the city’s representatives would take the field in Avellaneda, on the edges of Buenos Aires, alongside Argentine giants Independiente – the seven times Libertadores champions no less – the game itself promised to be little more than a sideshow to the nightlong party already threatening to break out.

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This was a time when Los Rojas of Cusco were floating at heights even higher than their base altitude thanks to the greatest glories in their history. The city famed for its Incan treasures had discovered riches of the football variety in not only qualifying for their first ever appearance in the Copa Sudamericana in 2003, the continent’s secondary club tournament – the South American equivalent of the Europa League – but excelling in it. 

They had only qualified for the competition in the first place thanks to a playoff victory over one of Peru’s largest clubs, Sporting Cristal, and once in the tournament proper they were perennially pitched as the underdog competing against teams they seemingly had no right to beat.

Their lowly status was no great surprise. Cienciano had, after all, been in the lower reaches of Peru’s Liga 1 for most of their modern history, dicing with relegation more often than challenging for honours. They had never been champions, but glory far beyond their national boundaries was what was now occupying their thoughts. 

In each successive round of the 2003 Copa Sudamericana, they faced what ought to have been a superior opponent, and on each occasion they prevailed. First it was against the biggest club in Peru, Alianza Lima, then Chile’s Universidad, which brought Cienciano into the quarter-finals. There they began to face South American royalty. 

First were Brazil’s Santos, two-time Libertadores champions, who were beaten 3-2 on aggregate. Then came Atlético Nacional of Colombia, also former Libertadores winners, who were beaten both home and away by Cienciano. Waiting in the final, to be held over two legs in December 2003, were one of the biggest of them all, River Plate.

At that time, River had won the Libertadores twice, but theirs was a status so far above that of Cienciano as to be almost from another world. And yet at El Monumental in the first leg in Buenos Aires, Cienciano twice took a shock lead. They led 1-0 and then fought back from 2-1 down to lead 3-2 before conceding a late equaliser to the great Marcelo Salas.

The return leg couldn’t be played in Cusco as the club’s stadium, the Garcilaso de la Vega, was deemed not of sufficient capacity to play host to a CONMEBOL final. Instead, the second leg was played in Arequipa, a ten-hour, 500km bus ride away from Cusco; a ride which awaited me a week or so down the line. 

For Cienciano’s greatest moment to play out without their own fans in a city some distance away was hugely disappointing. That it was also played with fans of Melgar, Arequipa’s principal club and southern Peruvian rival of Cienciano, turning up to shout for River was perhaps unsurprising – but it didn’t negatively impact on the Cusco team. 

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A lone, late goal from Cienciano’s Paraguayan defender Carlos Aquino won the Copa Sudamericana for Cienciano, remarkably making them the first Peruvian club to win a continental title, a fact that Cienciano will forever have claim to over the Lima giants who dominate Peruvian football.

This unprecedented success had taken place a couple of months before my ascent into the Andes as I made my way north through Chile, Argentina and Bolivia and on to Peru. The South American football season that had ended with the Sudamericana triumph would now begin with Cienciano’s first appearance in the Libertadores, and the scene that played out in the Plaza de Armas on that warm February evening.

Pitted into a group with not only the most successful team in Libertadores history in Independiente, they would also be up against Uruguay’s Nacional. The Montevideo club were another multiple Libertadores winner, placing themselves on a plane well above the debutants of Cienciano in this grand old competition. Even the final team in the group, Ecuador’s El Nacional, were far more experienced at this level of competition than Cienciano.

As the sun set over the old Inca capital, the streets became lined with vendors selling Cienciano flags and other paraphernalia, while the bars spilled out into the Plaza. Several thousand fans adorned with a variety of red and white shirts, scarves, flags and any other symbol of support they could lay their hands on, all strained their necks for a view of the flickering images on the cloth screen hanging in front of Cusco’s iconic cathedral of events taking place more than 4,000km away in Avellaneda. 

The cheers as Cienciano kicked off their first ever match in the Libertadores betrayed a mixture of pride, hope and anticipation that only such a shared experience can provide. Locals and tourists mixed in a welcoming atmosphere of pure joy as the purpose of the party finally took centre stage. 

For us as visitors at this gathering, mere interlopers in their moment, we were a part of the whole mass of supporters, sharing every breath of emotion, willing them on, albeit without the agonising jeopardy that the true supporters were exposed to.

After a fairly even opening few minutes, the usual oohs and aahs of the crowd were monetarily replaced with an exasperated, desperate plea. The transmission was lost for less than a minute as we all stared hopefully at the blank canvas of a screen hoisted above us where the game had been. When the images returned, the panicked looks of those temporarily unable to witness sporting history was instantly replaced by the anguished howl of disappointment. 

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As the pictures from Argentina returned, the scene we all saw made clear what we had missed in our enforced absence. The Independiente players were huddled in celebration, congratulating what was clearly the opening scorer. That we hadn’t even seen the moment Cienciano’s early hopes were dashed somehow added to the agony of those watching on.  

The atmosphere remained positive and joyous throughout, even if the game proved ultimately beyond Cienciano’s reach. Two goals down at the interval, it was 3-0 soon after before a late fightback garnered some respectability with a final 4-2 score line. It had been something of a baptism of fire for the Cusco club, but a magnificent occasion nonetheless. 

Nobody seemed particularly downbeat as the banners and flags were packed away and the crowds dispersed. By the next morning, as we passed through Cusco on our way to begin the Inca Trail, all signs of the night before had gone and life was back to normal.

Cienciano’s sole Copa Libertadores campaign picked up from that opening loss with a victory over Ecuador’s El Nacional, before two narrow losses to Uruguay’s Nacional. Ultimately a 3-3 draw in Quito ended any hopes of qualifying for the knockout rounds, although a final 3-2 victory in the home tie against Independiente – again played in Arequipa – ensured they finished third, just a point behind their illustrious Argentine rivals. 

If Libertadores glory was a step too far, it wasn’t the end of a miraculous 12 months for Cienciano. As Sudamericana holders, they took part in the Recopa Sudamericana – a Super Cup between the Libertadores and Sudamericana winners. Having beaten River to claim the Sudamericana, Cienciano now faced the other Buenos Aires giants, Boca, the reigning Libertadores winners from the end of 2003. 

In a clash played in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, an early Carlos Tevez strike for Boca, a team riddled with international stars, was cancelled out just a minute from time by Cienciano’s Colombian substitute striker Rodrigo Saraz.  

The match went to penalties, and it was the underdogs who held their nerve once again, when the more fancied club couldn’t hold theirs. Misses from Tevez and Fabian Vargas for Boca contrasted with the perfect four out of four that Cienciano’s penalty takers managed, meaning they added the Recopa to sit alongside the Sudamericana in their trophy cabinet, one cabinet which remains free of top domestic honours, but houses Peru’s only two South American club victories.

The final acts of glory played out with me little more than a stranger from afar checking the score, and fondly remembering the day I shared with the Cienciano fans in Cusco some months before; a day in which the joy of football brought together people hailing from all corners of the world whose paths just happened to cross on one particular day in Cusco in February 2004.

By Aidan Williams @yad_williams

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