Peru are taking part in a football World Cup for the first time in 36 years.
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The team started with a narrow 1-0 loss to Denmark but its presence in Russia is a landmark achievement for a nation which has long been regarded as the great underachiever of South American football.
Ranked 11 in the world, with an inspirational father figure of a coach in Ricardo Gareca – who has dramatically changed the team’s fortunes since taking over in 2015 – and one of the world’s most dangerous strikers in the air in captain Paolo Guerrero, there’s a real belief they could be a potential dark horse at this year’s tournament.
To understand the change Gareca has masterminded with La Blanquilla, you only need to look at the litany of indiscipline incidents which plagued the side for more than two decades.
Indiscipline and Peruvian football are so synonymous that there’s even an entire Wikipedia page purely devoted to the national team’s various scandals, typically involving partying in nightclubs just days before vital World Cup qualifiers.
“Last November, I wasn’t so optimistic. But watching their recent friendly matches, this is a team that’s ready to reach the knockout stages,” said one Peru fan Luis Echegaray.
“This is a pretty young team. But there’s a togetherness about them. In Guerrero, we have a physically imposing striker who creates problems for even the best defenders in the world. Most importantly, Gareca has provided a sense of stability which Peru has never really been used to before.”
Various theories abound for why discipline has been such a problem for Peru teams over the years.
“Many people feel it is a problem of education,” said another fan Pedro Canelo.
“They put it down to poor training of footballers in our country at a young age, and in addition, the previous national team coaches were not very firm on that topic.”
Others believe it stems more from a deep-rooted national mentality that Peru were inferior to the leading South American sides such as Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Brazil.
This mentality can be traced back to the harrowing events of 1987 when a plane transporting Peruvian team Alianza Lima back from a league match plunged into the Pacific Ocean, killing 43 of the 44 passengers on board.
An entire generation of Peru’s most talented young players was lost, a national tragedy which Echegaray believes took the Peruvian Football Association decades to recover from.
“These players were the main promise of the national team and suddenly, they were all gone,” said Echegaray.
“At the same time, the Shining Path, the guerrilla group in Peru had taken over the country and was terrorising the nation. So it was an extremely turbulent time, and I don’t think we ever quite found the right way to press the reset button and start over again.”
The Peru teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s were loaded full of talented players such as Nolberto Solano and Claudio Pizarro. But for all their individual ability, Peru could not find a way to create cohesion.
“The biggest strength of the current Peru team is that they are a unit,” said Julio Uribe, who managed Peru in two stints.
“Our previous sides have been teams of individuals. I think this shows that Peru is learning from the mistakes of the past, which is the important thing.”
Uribe and other Peru managers were often criticised by the national media for constantly tinkering with the line-up and formation, experimentations which suggested they lacked a clear strategy.
Peruvian fans complained there was no sense of identity within the side. But Gareca has been the opposite.
Large investments were also made in enhancing the infrastructure behind the national team – sports psychologists were hired to improve the mental resilience of the players, and an expanded scouting network scoured the Peruvian league for signs of new, emerging talent.
And most crucially, the Peruvian federation backed Gareca and his philosophies, despite a disastrous start to the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign which saw them suffer losses against Colombia, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay in their opening six matches.
This followed a 14-match unbeaten streak to reach the 2018 World Cup.
“Keeping faith in the project despite bad results has been a big difference,” said former Peru goalkeeper Oscar Ibanez.
“In the past, interrupting things after a few losses and quickly changing manager to another one with completely different ideas, made us constantly go backwards. But another big factor is that most of the national team players now play in foreign leagues with a superior level to the Peruvian league, and that makes them more competitive internationally.”
For Peruvians, after 36 years of hurt which have encompassed tragedy, war, and numerous national disgraces, finally being part of another World Cup has alone been a cause for national celebration.
But the nation is daring to dream that it could yet reach the knockout stages for the first time since 1978.
“I think we’re capable of living with any other team,” said Ibanez.
“We’re in a challenging group but I believe we will make it to the next round. Just by being at the World Cup, Peru is living an immense euphoria, and the players and Gareca are national heroes. I am sure that now we will regularly be able to qualify for World Cups through the spirit they have created.”