January 24, 2018

Peruvian football’s return to past glories

Back on the world stage, Peru could be dark horses in Russia


When Russia 2018 rolls around this summer, there will be many underlying back stories within each participating nation. Whether it’s squad composition and harmony, playing style or simply nervousness surrounding the upcoming footballing fiesta, no nation or coach will have more synchronous emotions than the Peruvian populous and their Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca.

The last of Peru’s four previous appearances on the world stage came in 1982, when times were vastly different. The Falklands war was ongoing, Aston Villa beat Bayern Munich to win the European Cup and ET: The Extra Terrestrial had just been released to worldwide wonderment. It was an uninspiring performance from La Blanquirroja who limped out in the first round.

Early exits have featured in all but one of Peru’s World Cup adventures. The exception being Didi’s tremendously hard-working side of 1970, who notched up wins against Morocco and Bulgaria before bowing out to Brazil at the quarter-final stage. That side is still known as the golden generation but the current incarnation has drawn close comparisons because of their tactical set up and player mentality.

Then manager Didi, who managed Sporting Cristal in the Peruvian league for seven years prior to his appointment had identified a common mental weakness when it came to Peru’s performance at international level, an inferiority complex. When it came to playing the more prestigious footballing nations he realised that Peru’s best simply didn’t believe they could be victorious. He would spend months implementing massive changes to try and conquer this mentality. His pre-tournament training camps called “in ritiro” (the Italian philosophy of pre-game isolation) became the stuff of legend. Players were worked to their limits both physically and mentally to condition them for a personalised and complex game-plan of tactical fluidity.

La Blanquirroja’s 4-2-4 formation was a revolutionary mixture of Alfredo Di Stefano’s “perpetual motion” concept and the Italian “Catenaccio” or “straightjacket” defensive strategy. The result was a beautiful blend of some Peru’s greatest ever attacking talent in Teofilo “Nene” Cubillas along with Hugo Sotil, Roberto Challe and Hector Chumpitaz mingled amongst a spine of selfless and hard-working players. Freedom of expression was encouraged on the pitch during a time when South American sides began converting to a more pragmatic and European style, Peru would stand alone as the innovators of the 1970’s.

Fast forward to February 2015 and after a baron spell of 33 years without a seat at the top table, current coach Ricardo Gareca was appointed in the hope of rejuvenating the floundering yet proud nation. This was not a popular appointment with the masses in Lima. He was still vilified for scoring a goal that sent his beloved Argentina to the 1985 World Cup at the expense of Peru. He only scored five goals in a twenty-cap international career so you would think being universally despised for that moment would taint El Flaco’s appetite for the job. Yet despite being “constantly reminded of that goal as soon as I arrived in Peru” he always maintained he was simply doing his job as an Argentine and it would never affect his thirst to guide Los Incas to the peak of their abilities.

Gareca’s previous managerial record was one of varied and recent success. Having been in management since 1996 and winning a league and cup with Talleres (his second of four spells as manager) in 98/99, he would go without any collecting another honour until titles with Peru’s Universitario in 2008 and three more with Argentinian club Velez between 2009 and 2013. It was evident from an early stage though that Gareca was the ideal candidate to get the best from the talented but undisciplined Peruvian side he inherited.

Similarly to Didi, El Tigre believes in a solid backbone over flamboyance. Something that links in closely with the modern Peruvian national identity. He instils in his players ideals of “work above all” and “be professional, be disciplined and trust one another”. A keen tactician and student of the game, he spends hours trawling through opposition analysis to identify weaknesses which he hopes to expose with careful and patient build up play. Remaining keenly aware that for his all action defensive strategy to succeed in stifling opposition attacks, his players must control and hold possession when possible to be physically able to maintain the press for each ninety minutes. He is quick to point out that Peruvian players are “technically sound, physically strong and most importantly adaptable”. It is also an advantage to them that their domestic league is played both at altitude and in varying conditions from extreme heat to chilling temperatures and that pitches range from natural to artificial, something that they will encounter in Russia.

Qualifying for Russia itself was a typically rocky road for Peru. Gareca interchanged between his favoured 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 depending on the situation but they won just a solitary game in their first six qualifiers. Questions were being raised as to whether El Tigre’s intense coaching methods were better suited to tournament play. Could he garner consistent performances from a team with which he only had a week or 10 days preparation? That was until, one result sparked a change in their fortunes. A 2-0 defeat to minnows Bolivia was overturned to a 3-0 win after the Bolivians used an ineligible player and Los Incas never looked back.

The talented attackers within Gareca’s system began to thrive and results soon followed. Andre Carillo, Carlos Ascues and Christian Cueva grew in influence and stature as the campaign progressed. Seasoned internationals like Jefferson Farfan and Paulo Guerrero produced from the front, contributing vital goals and leading the team on a ten-game unbeaten run (the longest in the country’s history) culminating in the aggregate win over New Zealand which has sent an already passionate following into a frenzy of anticipation ahead of this summer.

Being drawn in a group alongside France, Australia and Denmark holds no fears for the South Americans and they will be quietly confident their intense approach will see them through the group stages at the very least. Gareca routinely speaks about wanting his side to boss games. Having overcome a traditionally poor away record in qualifying, instilling this belief of controlling games against the world’s best teams is his next task. Maybe he has a point, sitting 11th in the current FIFA world rankings they are statistically among the best around. It appears the inferiority complex identified by Didi within the national psyche still lingers over 40 years on.

What is beyond doubt is that with the correct build up and a slice of luck with injuries, Peru could make a deep run in the competition. They will have a vociferous fan base supporting them, it figures to be a big year for the working-class backbone of South America. It is too early to anoint them as the third golden generation but with the increasing similarities between themselves and the teams of 1942 and 1970, the national hype and expectation for Russia 2018 will continue to grow at a rapid rate.

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