Feature

Peru's Achilles heel threatens to derail their World Cup path

Source: Getty Images

It has been 34 years since Peru graced the FIFA World Cup but unless something is done to reverse a shocking recent qualifying record on the road, the long wait is destined to continue.

I was just turning five in the build up to the 1970 World Cup – too young to really understand what all the fuss was about.  I do recall, though, some older kids nearby collecting the sticker album, and I can still remember going through a pile of their swaps. 

The first one I saw was a Peruvian – memory plays tricks but it might well have been Ramon Mifflin.  Everything about the photo looked impossibly exotic – the Andean features and, especially, that red sash on the white shirt!

In my young mind it all conjured up mystery and adventure.

The Peru team, who had knocked out Argentina in qualifying, gave a similar jolt to the early stages of the tournament in Mexico.  They went out to Brazil at the quarter final stage but left their mark.  Some even compared the exuberant quality of their play with the great Hungarian side of the 1950s.

The next time round I was old enough to take in all the details.  Unlike Australia, Peru did not make it to the 1974 World Cup.  They were back four years later, though, and this time as reigning South American champions.  Better still, some of those names from 1970, and especially star man Teofilo Cubillas, were still around.

I enjoyed watching Cubillas tear Scotland to shreds – though not half as much as he did.  Scotland coach Ally McLeod had dismissed the Peru side as too old.  Many years later Cubillas beamed as he told me how much of a motivating factor that had been.

By the end of the tournament, though, Peru looked very short on motivation, caving in to a 6-0 defeat to Argentina, a margin sufficient for their opponents, the World Cup hosts, to make it through to the final.  They went home in disgrace, and did not cover themselves in glory four years later in Spain, when they were knocked out in the group phase.

Since, then…. nothing.  They came close to qualifying for 1986 at the expense of eventual champions Argentina.  In 1998 only goal difference stopped them going to France.  But Peru have not been back to a World Cup – and less than a third of the way into the current campaign, it would take a brave man to bet on them making it through to Russia 2018.

Only a stoppage time goal against Venezuela earlier this week prevented them from going into the next match as the bottom team in the qualifying group of 10.  Peru found themselves two goals down.  Their equaliser came deep into stoppage time.  The 2-2 draw leaves them in eighth position, badly needing to make up lost ground – starting with the trip to Uruguay in the sixth round of this marathon campaign.

This brings the Peruvians face to face with their demon – playing away from home.  Their record on the road in recent campaigns reads like something from the chamber of horrors.  Since that narrow failure in 1998, their away record from 37 games is: 2 wins, 6 draws, 29 defeats, with 22 goals scored and 83 conceded.

It is the retrospective of a team with no self-belief, a side ready to crumble at the first sign of adversity.  The team’s home record is respectable – and Lima does not have issues of altitude or extreme temperatures that make life tough for the away team. 

With a reasonable performance on their travels Peru would have been in contention for a World Cup place.  This, then, is the key problem that coach Ricardo Gareca has to solve. 

There were encouraging signs in the opening game of the current campaign – Peru were very unfortunate to lose 2-0 away to Colombia.  Their second half display deserved at least a draw, and a breakaway last gasp Colombian goal makes the result an unfair reflection of the play.  But normal service was resumed in the tame 3-0 capitulation to Brazil.

In a few days Peru return to the scene of their last away triumph – all the way back to June 2004, when they came away from Montevideo’s Centenario stadium celebrating a splendid 3-1 victory over Uruguay.  This came in the early stages of the 2006 qualifiers, and fostered a real faith that Peru would be present in Germany. 

However, they picked up just one point from their remaining six away matches – and in the subsequent campaigns have only picked up one more point in 19 games.

The scorers that day in Montevideo nearly 12 years ago included the young pair of Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfan, strikers surely good enough to grace a World Cup.  They are still waiting. 

Soon after Venezuela went two goals up in the fifth game of qualifying, both were hauled off by Gareca.  Indeed, it was their replacements who were responsible for the equaliser, Edison Flores crossing from the left for Raul Ruidiaz to glance home a header.

Before that, centre-forward Paolo Guerrero had made history.  Peru’s first goal was his 27th for his country – putting him ahead of Cubillas as the team’s all-time top leading scorer.  Guerrero has been outstanding in the last two Copa Americas – but at the age of 32 he is surely having his last chance to play in a World Cup.

If that is going to happen then Peru surely need to come back from Uruguay with at least a point.  Farfan will not be there this time – he misses the game through injury.  Gareca will have to decide if he can afford to play Pizarro as well as Guerrero – it might be advisable to leave the 37 year-old veteran on the bench.  This is the night when a new, more mobile generation will have to step up.

It will not be easy.  The Centenario will be rocking, with the local fans desperate to welcome back Luis Suarez after his long ban from competitive action.  Morale in the Uruguayan camp will be high after a stirring comeback earned them a 2-2 draw away to Brazil. 

Peru, though, have had an extra day’s rest.  Can they make it count?  Do the 2016 Peru have a little more strength of character than some of their recent predecessors?

If not, then that exotic red sash has no chance of making an appearance in Russia.

Source SBS