¡Arriba Perú! The hope and joy of a national obsession

“Historically only two teams in South America have played what the Brazilians call o jogo bonito, the beautiful game: Brazil and Peru”

Winston Reid is already backpedalling as Cueva jinks into the box. The winger picks out Jefferson Farfán jogging, unmarked, towards the penalty spot. There’s a split second where it seems like Farfán’s touch has spun the ball just out of his stride…

When Christian Ramos scored Peru’s second with 25 minutes to go, that fate was sealed — Keeton Gale / Shutterstock Peru national obsession football joy hope
When Christian Ramos scored Peru’s second with 25 minutes to go, that fate was sealed — Keeton Gale / Shutterstock

Bang.

The noise was such that the seismic laboratory registered it as an earthquake. As Farfán’s shot hit the back of the New Zealand net, the whole of the city of Lima leapt up as one in an unrestrained shockwave of noise and emotion.

As the commentators fell over their words before being reduced to incoherent sobs, it felt like this was fate; when Christian Ramos scored Peru’s second with 25 minutes to go, that fate was sealed.

“Of course, in that game, we beat New Zealand, but the main thing was that Peru had to defeat Peru.” I speak to Pedro Gutiérrez, a Peruvian football fan who gives me some insight into what going to a first World Cup since 1982 means for the country.

“It’s a country full of hope. The people are open and generous, and the whole country is such a melting pot. It’s very multiethnic, very multicultural.” Indeed, they’ve had two recent Presidents of distinctly non-Peruvian descent: Alberto Fujimori, and the current incumbent Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.

For a country that prides itself on joy and hope, the recent achievement could be just the beginning — Peruphotart / Shutterstock Peru national obsession football joy hope
For a country that prides itself on joy and hope, the recent achievement could be just the beginning — Peruphotart / Shutterstock

In footballing terms, however, the success – or rather, lack of it – since failing toqualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico seems inextricably linked to the plight of the country as a whole.

In 1985, only managing a draw with Argentina in their final qualifying game (Argentina’s equaliser was scored by Ricardo Gareca, now the head coach of Peru) meant that they had to go to a play-off with Chile, losing 5-2 on aggregate over two legs.

“Isabel Allende, a Chilean writer, said that Chileans want to be ethnically Argentinian and culturally Peruvian,” says Gutiérrez.

“A lot of South Americans feel animosity towards the Chilean national team. Even today, they’re holders of the Copa América, but their attitude… there are such things as bad winners! Those aren’t my feelings towards Chile as a country, it’s a country I like very much, but you know what I mean.” He smiles ruefully.

“Listen, historically only two teams in South America have played what the Brazilians call o jogo bonito, the beautiful game: Brazil and Peru. It’s just… they remembered that as well as playing well, you also have to win. We seemed to forget that!”

In the middle of 1985, as Peru failed to reach the World Cup, the country was in crisis. After experiencing chronic inflation, the sol was replaced as the national currency by the inti, which in 1991 was itself replaced by the nuevo sol.

 In November 2000, Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori resigned from the government and fled into self-imposed exile — 	Staff Sergeant Karen L. Sanders, United States Air Force Peru national obsession football joy hope
In November 2000, Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori resigned from the government and fled into self-imposed exile — Staff Sergeant Karen L. Sanders, United States Air Force

By now, the income of the average Peruvian had plummeted to levels unknown since the rampantly unstable 60s, and this contributed to the rise of violent insurgent movements from rural areas.

Fujimori, now in power, implemented radical methods to cut inflation, encouraging privatization of state-owned companies, and attempted to crack down on insurgent groups.

By the end of the 90s, insurgency had largely been quelled, only for evidence of government paramilitary atrocities and human rights violations to come to the fore. In November 2000, Fujimori resigned from the government and fled into self-imposed exile.

Since then, the country has mainly been in a battle against corruption and self-doubt. Gutiérrez again: “We felt crippled due to a lack of triumph, both on the world and the footballing stages.”

As communications and the media made the world a smaller place, Peru was experiencing huge problems at just the wrong moment.

“Historically, culturally, and for the average person, it’s a wonderful country, but the only reputation we had in a lot of circles was one of a corrupt, violent place – albeit with nice landscapes and good food.”

Thirty years of sporting disappointment feels like it’s been reflected in society.

“Of course, in that game, we beat New Zealand, but the main thing was that Peru had to defeat Peru," said Gutiérrez — Peruphotart / Shutterstock Peru national obsession football joy hope
“Of course, in that game, we beat New Zealand, but the main thing was that Peru had to defeat Peru,” said Gutiérrez — Peruphotart / Shutterstock

Fast forward to 2017. Ironically, it was Chile that gave the Peruvians hope after blowing the whistle on the Bolivian team. In the two games that took place in the first week of September (matches seven and eight out of 18), defender Nelson Cabrera appeared off the bench for Bolivia against both Chile and Peru.

Not a problem… except he’d also turned out for Paraguay in a friendly back in 2007, and was therefore ineligible.

Those two games – a win for Bolivia over Peru and a draw with Chile – were both converted to 3-0 wins. This, of course, meant that instead of Chile gaining one point from their game against Bolivia and the Peruvians gaining none, they were both awarded three points.

Finally, for Peru, something seemed to be going their way. Inspired by a new sense of right, in their following ten games, they won four, drew four and lost only two, including a 4-1 win in Paraguay and a highly creditable 0-0 draw in Argentina.

In the final round of matches, Peru found themselves only able to play out a 1-1 draw with Colombia, and needed Brazil to beat Chile. In the end, two goals in two second-half minutes from Paulinho and Gabriel Jesus put Brazil ahead, before Jesus wrapped it up in the 92nd minute, scoring Brazil’s third. Peru were in the playoff, ahead of Chile on goal difference alone.

 

The whole country should be very proud” said the victorious couch, Gareca — Carlos Rodríguez/Andes Peru national obsession football joy hope
The whole country should be very proud” said the victorious couch, Gareca — Carlos Rodríguez/Andes

As the sun rises the morning after the night before, the party is still going on all across the country. The win is dedicated to veteran forward Paolo Guerrero, suspended for that game, but available for the World Cup, and one of only a handful of Peruvians to have made a mark on the European game.

Gareca, the victorious coach, records a heartfelt message: “I’m sending my greetings to the entire country. I know they’re all celebrating. We felt the emotion and the full support of the Peruvian people. The whole country should be very proud.”

A couple of weeks later, they will be drawn in a group alongside former champions France, as well as Denmark and Australia. Getting out of the group will be their aim, and it seems an achievable one.

With the passion of their people behind them, the players donning that famous white shirt with the distinctive red sash will be playing for recognition not only from the footballing community, but also from a world that many Peruvians feel hasn’t seen the best of them yet.

For a country that prides itself on joy and hope, this could be just the beginning.