We’re sitting on a plane flying high over the Peruvian Andes. As far as the eye can see the ridges of green and brown mountains push up into the sky in which we fly, testimony to the incredible forces of nature which caused the formation of this massive natural barrier along the west coast of South America. Far below lie tiny isolated hamlets, probably days away along unmade tracks from the nearest town. How brave were the Spanish conquistadors who invaded the area and subdued the Inca tribes that previously inhabited them? What motivations drove them? Was it a lust for gold and other earthly riches? Or some more profound human impulse for adventure and discovery? What was certain was that they were advancing into an area of incredible natural beauty, and about to subjugate a civilisation responsible constructing some of the greatest buildings on earth.
If the indigenous people of Peru were largely unsuccessful in preventing the advance of that particular invading army in the 1500s, then one set of Peruvians were rather more effective in seeing off the challenge of another group of Europeans who landed on South American soil over 400 years later with ambitions of global domination. If the bravery and motivation of Pizarro’s men is to be wondered at, there’s little doubt that “Ally’s Army” were deluded to the point of madness when Scotland arrived in Argentina for the 1978 World Cup talking of outright victory. Despite the presence of Kenny Dalgleish the Scots made their customary first round exit, but on the way contributed to some of the most memorable episodes in Peruvian football history.
Rather like Welsh rugby, Peruvian football enjoyed a golden period between 1970 and 1982 which saw World Cup qualification on three occasions, and the South American championship in 1975. The Scots foolishly regarded the Peruvians as a soft touch in their opening game in 1978, paying the price with a 3-1 defeat, which allowed the South Americans to progress to the second phase at their expense. Two goals from Teofolis Cubillas, Peru’s greatest ever player, put Ally MacLeod’s extravagant predictions in perspective. Welsh fans could hardly suppress the sniggers, as Scotland had qualified at Wales’ expense, care of Joe Jordan’s infamous Anfield handball. If the image of Cubillas, grinning widely with arms aloft after scoring his second goal represented one of the high points of Peruvian football history, it was to be only a couple of weeks to the disgrace of all-time low.
To this day, nobody knows the real truth behind Peru’s 6-0 defeat at the hands of Argentina in what was effectively the semi-final of the 1978 World Cup. What we do know is that the host nation’s right wing military dictator General Galtieri badly wanted a World Cup win to take the pressure of public discontent off his murderous regime. The tournament had been organised with the flawed concept of the second round being composed of two groups, the winner of each contesting the final. Results and fixture scheduling contrived to mean that Argentina had to beat the hitherto competent Peru by four clear goals to pip Brazil. The world watched bemused on it’s television screens as Cesar Menotti’s team ran in six. Were we watching the flowering of a great team, or one of the biggest fixes in the history of the game? Years later the answer is far from clear.
Romantics might point to the wonderful players in that Argentine team. Unquestionably, the likes of Kempes, Luque, Ardiles and Villa were class acts who were capable of irrepressible attacking play. The Peruvians were already out of contention, and had nothing to play for save their national pride. On the other hand, could a side that had held the attacking might of the Dutch to a goalless draw just a matter of a week or so before be quite so defensively incompetent? If material benefits never changed hands, might the Peruvians been intimidated in the manner that the Dutch complained of before the final? Even if individuals in the Peruvian team were not to benefit personally, might there have been shenanigans at a higher level? Peru was also run by a military dictatorship at the time. Evidence came to light after the fall of Galtieri of truckloads of grain being sent from Argentina to impoverished Peru in the aftermath of the game, and of financial favours granted to Peru by Argentine banks. Question marks surrounded the selection of inexperienced Peruvian defenders for the match, whilst the Peruvian goalkeeper Ramon Quiroga, Argentine by birth and a noted eccentric, surpassed himself with various unorthodox and unsuccessful attempts to prevent the Argentines scoring. We will probably never know what went on before and during that match. What is for certain is that the result, fair or foul, represented a massive humiliation for Peruvian football, arguably one from which it has never truly recovered. To add insult to injury, when World Cup qualification was again secured in 1982 the decisive final group game was lost to Poland to the tune of 5-1.
Lager and Lima – How to Get High in Cusco
World Cup qualification has not been secured since then, and Peru, once considered the third best team on the continent now rank amongst the also rans. Still, hope springs eternal, and tonight Peru are due to take on old rivals Chile. Sadly for me, the game is taking place in Lima, which we had left earlier that morning. However, we will need to take things easy on our arrival in Cusco due to the potential for altitude sickness, and a night in front of the television seems just what the doctor would order. More frustratingly, medical advice suggests a couple of alcohol free days are also in order, particularly annoying when we are in the home city of Cusquina, Peru’s best beer. One alternative was to drink Inca Cola, the unofficial national soft drink of Peru, which in fact is not cola at all, but tastes similar to cream soda. Rather more excitingly, in order to help fight altitude sickness, visitors to the high Andes are encouraged to drink coca mate, a traditional Amerindian tea made from the same coca leaves which supply the cocaine trade. The thin air at 12,000 feet makes one feel slightly light headed and not a little confused, so it’s difficult to know precisely how much of an effect the coca mate has. Certainly the tea has proved invaluable to at least one South American footballer, who upon failing a routine drug test in which traces of cocaine were detected, immediately pointed the finger at the coca mate which he alleges he drank in order to help prepare for a match scheduled for high altitude.
Altitude was to provide Chile with no excuse for the events that were about to unfold. The match was played at the National Stadium in Lima which we had passed on the way to the airport that morning. Resembling a smaller version of Wembley before it’s 1960s refit, the 55,000 seater open bowl looks, like much of Lima, as if it has seen better days. The television coverage is an interesting experience, but hopefully not a harbinger of things to come on British commercial channels. Much debate raged in Europe prior to the 1994 World Cup in the USA surrounding American suggestions of interspersing more advertising time into television “soccer” by dividing the game into four quarters. Thankfully this suggestion was never pursued. However, in Peru they have got around the problem by playing the adverts during the actual play. At quarter hourly intervals sponsors logos appear in the top left hand corner of the screen, replacing the clock and scoreline. The volume of the commentary is turned down and inane voice-overs spout forth the virtues of the sponsor’s products. This really is an annoying device, and even makes one nostalgic for the inane interruptions of British televisions “guest analysers”. One can only hope that representatives of the Premier League never get to see this particular “golden oppurtunity” to boost their revenue. If ever an advertising ploy was a spur to actively boycott products, then this surely was it.
The sad aspect was that the commentary itself was part and parcel of the atmosphere to a gringo outsider such as myself. If the commentary in Brazil had typified the musical qualities of the Brazilian enunciation of the Portuguese language, the Peruvian version was gattling gun Spanish delivered with a breathless excitement which made the likes of Jonathon Pearce appear positively pedestrian. One was left scratching one’s head as to precisely when this human pneumatic drill found time to breathe, let alone as to how anybody could find quite so much excitement at the routine winning of a throw in near the half way line.
Don’t Mention the War
Peru versus Chile does have historical connotations reaching back to a time when organised football had yet to take off in either country. Between 1879 and 1884 Peru and Bolivia fought a war with Chile over trade tariffs in the disputed territory of the Atacama Desert. Unfortunately the war turned into a humiliating disaster for both the Peruvians and the Bolivians. The former lost land in the Atacama, a source of massive mineral resources whilst the latter lost their coastline, crucial to it’s export trade. The loss of the Atacama has become part of Peruvian folklore, and is blamed by many to this day as the source of Peru’s continuing economic problems. That this analysis is, to say the least questionable, matters not one iota in the context of a partisan football commentary. Suffice to say that history adds a certain spice to this fixture.
The first half of the match is a fairly even affair as both sides create chances and Chile hit the bar. Sadly we were unable to hear the commentators surely hysteric reaction to this near disaster due to the interuption of the “sponsor’s five minutes”. Midway through the half a dreadful error by the Chilean goalkeeper Peric gifts an opening goal to Peru to inspire the commentator to even more apoplectic raptures of excitement. The interval arrives with the Chilean goal under siege, and a nagging feeling that the Peruvians might have wasted the chance to kill the game. Probably the best (if not the only) known current Peruvian player to British audiences is Newcastle’s Norberto Solano, who evidently hasn’t made the trip for this match. His team mate Clarence Acuna appears in a Chile shirt, although for the extent of his influence he might as well not have bothered turning up either.
The game changes irredeemably in the first few minute of the second half as Peru pick up where they left off at the end of the first half and score twice in two minutes. Both are excellent skilled finishes by Claudio Pizarro of Bayern Munich, Peru’s main striker. Amusingly, the commentator’s traditional cry of “gooo-aaal” has hardly subsided when the ball is nestling once more in the Chilean net, necessitating the only audible intake of breath of the night before repeating the performance. The Peruvians go on to dominate the remainder of the match as Chilean heads go down, and only bad luck and bad finishing keep the score down. The main entertainment in the closing minutes is provided by Maestri, the Peruvian substitute, who provides what can only be described as a remarkable performance. An ungainly hulk in the Julian Alsop mode, and incongruous in such skilful surroundings, his arrival on the pitch is greeted with whistles and jeers. His apparent status as the Carsten Janker of Peru is confirmed when he somehow contrives to miss a simple tap in for what would have been the fourth goal. Within a minute a scything challenge on a Chilean defender results in a red card. Two minutes on the pitch, one dreadful miss, one red card and three deafening howls of derision. Not even Steve Watkin could have rivalled that performance.
Peruvian football centres on Lima, perhaps hardly surprising when considering it’s relative size compared to other Peruvian cities. Economic hardship in the countryside, exacerbated by the system of land ownership, combined with both the difficulties of the mining industry and the activities of the Sendoro Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorists drove many people from the country to the capital in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in a huge urban sprawl. If the favelas are not as obvious as in Rio this may be due to the apparent general level of poverty in districts such as the Rimac, through which we drive on the way to the airport.
Allianza Lima are the blue and white striped shirted team of the Lima working classes. Their city rivals are Universitario, traditionally the team of Lima’s upper classes, and Sporting Cristal. For many years the “national” league was in fact the league of Lima and district, but even since the competition was expanded to become truly national, the capitol’s teams have dominated. Not since 1989 have a team from the provinces been national champions. The present championship structure is based on a twelve team league which splits at the half way mark into two six team “mini leagues” for the second half of the season.
The three Lima teams may have historically dominated the national championship, but strangely replica kits from these clubs are not much in evidence, either amongst the population or in the shops in the main shopping centre. Indeed, apart from the occasional maroon collared cream shirt of Universitario, the main kits in evidence in the sports shops of the main central shopping area are those of a strange selection of European teams, with Chelsea being the sole British representative. The fact that the Universitario shirts were being sold at almost European prices in the central sports shops seemed to reflect the social group from which their fan base was drawn. To find local kits it was necessary to dive into a small clothes shop in the back streets not far from the Rimac. Part of me had always rather fancied a Peruvian national shirt, with it’s red diagonal sash making the national team resemble a group of diplomats who had escaped from a state banquet for a quick kick around before the speeches. An original replica at 65 Soles (approximately £16) seemed good value to a gringo with western purchasing power such as myself.
An End to Provincial Frustration
A truly national league was always difficult logistically in Peru prior to the introduction of air travel due to the country’s huge size and geographic diversity. Even when the championship expanded to include teams from outside Lima, it was initially structured on the best teams from regional leagues entering a series of play offs. Overland journeys of two of three days between major cities are common, whilst jungle settlements such as Iquitos cannot be reached by surface transport from Lima. Only with the availability of cheap and relatively safe air travel did regular cross national fixtures become a practicable possibility. For reasons of time we flew from Lima to Cusco, but ideally would have travelled by train and bus. The rail journey from Lima to Huancayo is acknowledged as one of the most spectacular in the world, and features the highest rail tunnel on any continent as the train ascends the Andes. Oxygen is available for those who are afflicted by altitude sickness. Unfortunately the passenger service was suspended in 1992 due to the activities of the Sendero Luminoso and was not due to re-open until later this year. A visit to Huancayo would have been one to savour for any football fan with a juvenile sense of humour, as the local team is the wonderfully named Deportivo Wanka. The latter word actually means something noble in Quechuan, the local Indian language, but you should bear in mind that if you overhear a Peruvian saying that their team are Wankas this may not necessarily be an insult.
Peru is also a country in which there are massive extremes of climactic conditions. The tropical pacific coast is a world away from the thin air of the Andes, let alone the sultry heat of the Amazonian jungle. Within minutes of stepping off the plane at Cusco we are starting to feel a little light headed, and one can only wonder how the nations footballers cope with having to play in such varied conditions. Debate has raged as to whether neighbouring Bolivia gain an advantage through playing home internationals at the height of La Paz, but if there is any advantage to be gained from this ploy it is hardly reflected in Peru where the Andean teams have yet to seriously challenge the Lima hegemony. The local team in Cusco, Cienciano, are due to play league leaders Alianza Lima on the Sunday, but my initial enthusiasm for this news is tempered when it becomes apparent that the game is in Lima. The Cienciano stadium, in contrast to the rather dull all-red kit of the team is painted brightly in the rainbow colours of the Inca flag. Locals in the area, who are in the main of Indian or mestizo ( Hispanic-Indian) descent, tend to show a contempt toward Lima and the national government, and throughout the country the Inca flag flies alongside the Peruvian.
One Hundred Years of Underachievement?
The lack of action in Cusco that Sunday meant that I had to restrict my football fix in Peru to televised action, and the coverage in the press. Peru has two national football dailies, “Libero” and “Bolon”, each of which carries incredibly detailed reports and analysis of the previous days games but are short on such useful information as forthcoming fixtures and league tables. The main interest that week was the participation of the Peruvian teams in the Copa Libertores, South America’s version of the Champions League. Allianza Lima were out of contention, and surrendered 4-0 in Chile in their final group game. Universitario, however, were involved in a thriller against Independiente Petrolero in Bolivia. The Lima side needed a win to move into second place in their group and increase their chances of progress. Going into injury time the score is 2-2. Almost immediately Univeritario win a penalty, and it seems the Gods are with the Peruvians. However, with a cruel twist of fate their supporters celebrations become stuck in their throats as the Universitario player hits the ball wide. You just knew their agony.
If the Peruvians international record is one of decline, then their record in South America’s premier club competition never raised much hope in the first place. Only Universitario, on a solitary occasion, have reached the Copa Libertores final, which they duly lost. If the lack of club success can be explained by the common South American problem of the best players being transferred abroad, this doesn’t explain the steady decline of the national team, who from being considered the third best team in the region in the 1970s, are now rated just above Venezuela as also rans. This is truly hard to explain, for whilst in Venezuela football comes a poor second to baseball as the number one sport, there is no doubt that in Peru football reigns supreme.
As the Macchu Piccu train zig-zags up the mountainside out of Cusco between desperately poor houses, we see children playing on a pitch of pure mud shoehorned amongst the buildings. On the train journey from Cusco across the huge Altiplano to Puno, we pass dozens of villages which are as diverse as the geographical features surrounding them. The two common items to each are a church and a football pitch. Some of the pitches are partly under water as the last remnants of the rainy season drain away, whilst others are located on desert like sand. At the market in Puno outside the municipal stadium a crowd has gathered to watch a series of informal seven per side matches, again played on a grassless pitch. This is a country which is football mad, has a large population, and yet can seemingly no longer compete with the middle ranking nations of the continent. Unlike Uruguay, who have also been unable to repeat the success of earlier years, Peru have not even been able to achieve respectability through occasional World Cup qualification.
Death in the Andes
Some might argue that the average Peruvian has rather more pressing concerns of scraping a living to be much bothered with the trivialities of football. Yet traditionally this has not been a problem for other South American or developing countries, and certainly the social inequalities and financial difficulties of Brazil have never stopped the flow of talented footballers. Again, perhaps the volatile political situation of the 1980s and 1990s, where a series of governments wilted in the face of economic decline and the fear engendered by terrorism, extracted a toll on national morale.
On a more ethereal level, perhaps the ancient beliefs and spirituality in which many Peruvians sought solace in difficult times deemed success in earthly pursuits such as football meaningless. Certainly our first sight of Maccu Picchu was truly magical and suggestive of other worlds. The early morning light as the sun came over the tops of the Andean mountains was mesmerising, sometimes giving the impression that this incredible monument to Inca ingenuity was floating on the clouds which swirled around and below us causing almost kaleidoscopic changes of light and colour. Peruvians could be forgiven if they ignored the man made gods of the round ball, and instead sought out the gods of nature in this truly stunning location, marvelling at this incredible combination of snow capped mountain, cloud forest jungle and man made wonder.
The influence and power of such ancient traditions and beliefs is not to be ignored in the Andes, and indeed seemed to form an integral part of the far from clear philosophy of the Sendero. Certainly, any activity of what was viewed as bourgeois society seemed to be deemed a legitimate target, and football may have been seen in this light. All aspects of complicity with western capitalism appeared to be violently rejected. However, whether any political organisation would be brave enough to dare declare war on something as ingrained in the Latin American psyche as football is questionable. Traditionally, even the most murderous regimes on the continent have harnessed the public appeal of football, and utilised it’s potential as the “opiate of the people” to the full. Furthermore, Peruvian football’s heartland is smack back down to earth at Lima.
All in the Head?
Surely a nation whose heritage and culture combine the ingenuity and invention of the Incas with the adventure and bravery of their Spanish invaders should not be short of the human qualities required to be successful at a game for which they have shown ability in the past and passion in the present. Perhaps the answer lies in the psychological blows struck by successive humiliations on the world stage, and in particular that night of Buenos Aires shame. A heavy defeat can be a massive burden to collectively cast aside – for example, many would argue that Welsh rugby never really recovered self belief following the 1987 World Cup blitzkreig by the All Blacks. When your own government is rumoured to have been complicit in such national humiliation, might even the doughtiest spirits wane? Perhaps more was lost that night in the Estadio Monumental than a single football match. Perhaps an entire generation collectively sighed and thought, what is the point? A similar experience seems to have been undergone in Hungary where dark rumours surround their 1986 World Cup drubbing at the hands of the USSR, and that once proud football nation also appears to have lost the plot.
In Britain we are lucky enough not to know the effects of rule by repressive dictatorships whose influence extends to every sphere, including football. We can never really know how suspicion of governmental manipulation affects attitudes toward sport. Ironically, Peru’s period of international success came under the military junta that was later rumoured to have been complicit in it’s darkest hour.However, those days are now well behind the Peruvians, and if the nightmare of the Argentine defeat still hangs over the present day team, perhaps the time has arrived to put the past behind them and lift the psychological yoke. Perhaps Peru’s 3-0 hammering of old rivals Chile will come to represent more than a mere pyrhic victory in revenge for an ancient war, and instead act as a catalyst for international recovery for a football nation who logically should be up there with the best.