I'm off to Lima this week on a mission: to try to understand how the current contradiction in Peruvian soccer can be explained.
Marooned at the bottom of South America's 2010 World Cup qualification campaign, the national team has managed just one win in 12 games. Its record on the road reads like something from the chamber of horrors: six games, all defeats; one goal scored and 20 conceded. It's an all-time low, but it merely confirms the recent trend.
In the north of the continent, Peruvian soccer was first out of the blocks -- way in advance of the likes of Ecuador and Colombia. Peru hosted the Copa América as far back as 1927, won it in 1939, and the national team produced strong performances in the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
Then came the great generation of the 1970s, of Teófilo Cubillas, HéctorChumpitaz, Hugo Sotil & Co. They enchanted everyone with their run to the quarterfinals of the '70 World Cup, won the '75 Copa América, had some good moments in the '78 World Cup and qualified for '82 as well. But since then, nothing.
La Blanquirroja came close to making it to Mexico '86. Only goal difference kept it out of France '98. But in the new century, the World Cup is as far away as Pluto for the Peruvians. After last month's home defeat to Chile, Nolberto Solano, the country's best player over the past decade, said that Peru was better off looking beyond the 2014 World Cup. Given the amount of ground it had to catch up on its rivals, he said, it should be thinking long-term, with its sights set on 2018.
Off the pitch, things are no better. The Peruvian state, through its Sports Institute, has been in open conflict with the local federation, whose controversial president, Manuel Burga, has been threatened with legal proceedings. The tug-of-war at the top meant that Peru was unable to stage the South American Under-20 Championships at the start of the year, which had to be switched to Venezuela at late notice. And it also meant that, until the Sports Institute and the FA agreed to work together to solve the dispute, Peru was threatened with a suspension from FIFA.
Had it been prolonged, a consequence of this suspension would have been that Peru's clubs would not have been able to take part in the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, and thus would have lost a key source of revenue.
But here comes the surprise. At this dreadful moment, with the national team and the internal politics of the game in disarray, the performances of the Peruvian clubs in this year's Libertadores haven't been this good in years.
True, Sporting Cristal fell in the qualifying round. But it had a very tough opponent -- Estudiantes of Argentina -- and was only eliminated on the away-goals rule after two creditable displays. And Peru's other two representatives have some points on the board to go with their pleasing performances. They are both in with a chance of getting through to the knockout stages.
San Martín is a club set up by a local university as recently as '04. In Group 3, it has already beaten mighty River Plate of Argentina in Lima. There are two games to go, and in the closing one, the teams meet again in Buenos Aires. With Nacional of Uruguay looking set to be take one of the group's qualifying slots, the other is between these two. Before the action started, the money would have been on River. Even in an awkward phase, it hardly could lose out to a five-year-old Peruvian club. Now, it's not so clear. A draw in Buenos Aires on April 30 could well be enough for San Martín. And it may not even be needed if River fails to win its penultimate game.
There has been more Peruvian success against Argentine opposition in Group 8. San Lorenzo of Buenos Aires, one of the pre-tournament favorites, already has no chance of reaching the knockout rounds. After winning its first match, it suffered four consecutive defeats, the first in Lima against Universitario, one of the traditional giants of the Peruvian game.
With one game to go in the group, Libertad of Paraguay already is assured of qualification. Universitario is the favorite to snap up the remaining place -- it has a three-point lead over Mexico's San Luis, so a draw away to the already-eliminated San Lorenzo will guarantee its presence in the last 16.
There is, then, a real possibility of two Peruvian clubs appearing in the knockout phase. The last club from the country to do so was Cienciano five years ago, and it could count on home advantage at the extreme altitude of Cuzco. In fact, not since Sporting Cristal made it to the '97 final has a Peruvian club put together a convincing Libertadores campaign. Yet now, at an unlikely moment, the country's representatives in the competition are doing better than for a long time.
Is this a ray of hope? Is a new brighter pattern emerging from the debris? We soccer journalists love to see such patterns. Look at all the hullabaloo about the performances of the English clubs in the Champions League. Many push this to argue that the EPL is the world's strongest league, just as has been done in the recent past with both Spain's La Liga and Italy's Serie A.
Sometimes the pattern is real. Sometimes it's just a mirage. A few years back, I got very excited by the prospects of Colombian soccer. Once Caldas, a provincial club, won the Libertadores in '04. The previous year, América and Medellín both reached the semifinals. Throw in some consistently impressive performances at youth level -- third in the '03 World Youth Cup, South American Under-20 champions in '05 -- and I jumped to the conclusion that the Colombian game might be on the verge of something special. I was wrong. There was no great pattern.
So is there one emerging in Peru? Is a reaction starting to gather strength? Or is it all coincidence? This is what I aim to find out. Anyone with thoughts on the matter, please send me an e-mail.