By Tim Vickery
March 02, 2010

These are strange, bittersweet times for soccer fans in Peru.

Other national teams and their players will seize this week, the last FIFA date for international friendlies until the end of the season, to prep for the World Cup. Not Peru.

Once again, the Peruvians have not qualified. When they emerged in the 1970 World Cup, playing gorgeous, carefree soccer and wearing those glamorous shirts with the red sash, it seemed a new global power had broken through. But it proved to be a case of one generation and out, and since that generation moved on, there have been no World Cups for Peru to enjoy.

Peru last qualified in 1982. It came close in 1986, nearly eliminating eventual champion Argentina in qualifying, and only goal difference kept it out of France in 1998. But since then, the world's top tournament has looked ever farther away. Peru finished the recent qualification campaign on the bottom of South America's table, No. 10 of 10, carrying a road record straight from the chamber of horrors: nine games, all defeats, with three goals scored and 26 conceded.

But even as the national team hit this all-time low, positive signs emerged at club level.

It began last year, during the 50th Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League. After years of drought, tiny San Martin became the first Peruvian club since 2004 to make it through to the knockout stages. Only a last-day collapse prevented Universitario from joining San Martin.

But Universitario is back this year, and as coach Juan Reynoso predicted, looking even stronger. With two wins and a draw in the opening three group matches, Universitario is clearly a candidate for a place in the knockout stages.

So too is the club's historical rival from the Peruvian capital, Alianza Lima. This is the seventh time Alianza has taken part in the competition since the expansion in 2000; it was eliminated in the group stage the previous six times. Little was expected of Alianza this year after it fell to Universitario and failed to qualify as Peruvian champions, but the club has produced two sensational performances, first shrugging off the extreme altitude of Bolivia's capital La Paz to win 3-1 at Bolivar, then recovering from going a goal down after seven seconds against the reigning champions, Estudiantes of Argentina, and striking back to win 4-1 in thrilling style.

In the long term, though, a third club's performance could prove even more significant. Juan Aurich is not from the capital, but rather the northern city of Chiclayo. This is worth noting because Peruvian football has historically suffered from its excessive centralization. The championship was only extended to include clubs outside the sprawl of Lima and Callao, the neighboring port, in 1966. Since then the title has left Lima on only three occasions, and not since 1989. The provincial clubs have found it hard to establish themselves, and Aurich has been no exception. In 1969, it became the first club from the provinces to play in the Libertadores. Until this year, that was the only time it had participated, leading to Aurich's slipping out of professional soccer at certain times.

But now Aurich is back, boasting an expensively acquired squad led by Colombian coach Luis Fernando Suarez, who took Ecuador to the last 16 in the 2006 World Cup. Aurich has suffered the only Peruvian defeat in the Libertadores -- but even its 5-1 loss at Estudiantes was not as bad as it might appear. The Peruvians held their own for the first half, caving in only after they had a man sent off.

Otherwise, Aurich's results have been excellent -- a 2-0 win over Bolivar, as well as a glorious home-and-away triumph over Mexico's Estudiantes Tecos in the brief qualifying round.

So far in the group phase proper, the Peruvian clubs have amassed five wins, one draw and one defeat, a mark that compares favorably to that of clubs from Argentina (six, zero, three) and Brazil (five, zero, two).

The hard part, then, is reconciling Peru's sudden success in the Libertadores with the national team's decline.

Some might argue the weakness of the Peruvian national team has benefited the clubs -- that poor international play has reduced any foreign appetite to buy Peruvian, leaving the local clubs better able to keep their best players.

But this argument doesn't really stand up. One fascinating aspect of this year's action is that the Peruvian players who have most stood out in the Libertadores have already dipped their feet into European football -- where they achieved next to nothing.

Strong striker Piero Alva of Universitario, scorer of a superb solo goal against Argentina's Lanus, once spent a season with Xanthi in Greece -- without a single league goal. Alianza Lima's strong center forward, Jose Carlo Fernandez, was magnificent against Bolivar and excellent against Estudiantes. Two games into the competition he already has three goals. But he recently spent time with Chernomorets of Russia and Bruges of Belgium without being able to score even one. His strike partner, Wilmer Aguirre, was out of this world against Estudiantes. The Argentine defense, which only two months earlier had kept Barcelona at bay for 88 minutes in the final of the World Club Cup, simply couldn't lay a glove on Aguirre as he tore through its ranks to score three times. And yet, Aguirre spent two dismal seasons with Metz in France.

It's not clear why these players are soaring in the Libertadores, when they have been unable to consistently do so before. It's not clear why they're succeeding in club play, but have not been able to elevate Peru's national team.

What is clear, though, it that with all the frustrations Peruvian fans have had to tolerate, they should be permitted to sit back and enjoy this unexpected success.

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