Why did Peru's World Cup dream end so early?
There are few teams in the world with fans so loyal and passionate as Peru's. Worthy invitees to the first World Cup in 1930, fans of Peru have watched helplessly as their team plunged into the nadir among CONMEBOL nations.
After their five successive appearances at the World Cup between 1930 and 1982 terminated, La Blanquirroja would have to wait 36 years to become eligible for another. Time seemed to slow. At least two generations of Peruvian senior players never represented their country at the World Cup. Peru’s oldest player and captain, Paolo Guerrero, wasn't even born when his country last appeared on the world stage.
Peru began their Russia 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign horribly, picking four points from their first six games. Then they switched gears, gathering seven from their next three. From that point, hope swelled in Lima. The cheers grew louder.
The Conmebol qualifiers are lengthy, 18 games over two years, but also enthralling. Peru finished fifth, thanks in large part to Lionel Messi’s brilliance against Ecuador in Argentina's final match. On the other hand, the Blanquirroja were eligible for a playoff berth against New Zealand while Copa America champions Chile were not. Peru were closer than they'd been in decades.
On 16th November 2017, it happened. Peru beat New Zealand 2-0 in Lima to qualify for its first World Cup since you-know-how-long. In fact, when striker, Jefferson Farfan fired home the opener, fans in Lima celebrated so thunderously, they set off seismic detectors in the Capital. It was that crazy.
Record scorer Guerrero wasn't there to help his team, suspended by FIFA on doping charges. Yet, watching Farfan celebrating tearfully by draping his skipper’s shirt over his head, one could’ve cut the emotion at the Estadio Nacional with a knife.
That night, the man who tossed up in the air by jubilant players wasn’t Peruvian. Argentine tactician Ricardo Gareca had restructured and revitalised the Peruvian national team in two short years.
The entire nation rallied behind the team. Fans couldn’t wait to see their country at a World Cup. It's estimated that 45,000 travelled, some mortgaging their homes to make the trip.
Gareca 's objective was to make it beyond the group stage. The team picked the worst time to hit a dip in form. They were eliminated after two goalless defeats. It was excruciating, to say the least. What went wrong?
Inexperience, missed chances, sheer hard luck
Indecision reared its head during the qualifiers. For 40 years Peru has waited for a World Cup victory. La Blanquirroja should have beaten Denmark but they didn't know how to win.
The number of missed chances, the rashness that comes with trying too hard was evident. Christian Cueva missed a penalty. Guerrero sent a backheel inches outside the post. Opportunity kept knocking. No one answered for Peru.
Their second game against France was no different. Again we saw some brilliant attacking play but Peru's poor finishing delighted the French. Man of the Match, Andre Carrillo was brilliant. He offered incisive play down the right but couldn't dirty Hugo Lloris' clean sheet.
A happy ending
Peru had no one but themselves to blame for their ouster but the Blanquirroja restored some pride to the nation in their last match. With Australia hoping to win to keep their promotion hopes alive, Peru beat the Socceroos. Andre Carrillo was rewarded for all his hard work in the tournament. His well-timed volley gifted Peru their first World Cup goal in 37 years. Paolo Guerrero had set him up, then put the icing on the victory in the second half with his disguised half-volley.
If you had watched the game, you’d have seen some tearful Peruvian fans at the final whistle. It was a victory that meant so much to a nation that has long been the laughing stock in South American football, especially their southern neighbours Chile. Now, however, Los Incas can come home having laughed loudest and last.