The dream lives on.
On Tuesday, Peru, which hasn’t reached the World Cup since 1982, overcame a hostile environment and the challenging altitude in Quito to defeat Ecuador 2-1, placing itself in fourth place in the South American group qualifiers. With two matches remaining, Peru is now in an automatic spot to qualify for next year’s tournament–ahead of powerhouses like Argentina and Chile.
Peru’s head coach, Ricardo Gareca, conjured up an ideal game plan for La Blanquirroja, as he ordered his team to prioritize the night’s biggest obstacle–the altitude. At 9,350 feet, Quito is an incredibly difficult destination for opposing sides, where sprinting to a 50-50 ball becomes almost as difficult as climbing a mountain.
As a result, Gareca wanted his players to not waste any energy, especially in the first half. Let the host chase, run and commit to unnecessary challenges, and just like Muhammad Ali tired out George Foreman in 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle, Peru did the same thing with one of its biggest rivals.
Both goals were due to exhaustion by the opposition, and exhaustion eventually leads to lack of commitment. Ecuador was too tired to challenge any forward runs in the final third, thinking that the opposition was also struggling, but in the 72nd minute, Edison Flores (who also opened the scoring for Peru against Bolivia) took advantage of the time he was getting, and so he took a chance outside the box. And what a goal it was.
Three minutes later, the visitors pounced again, this time on a counter. It was finished off by Paolo Hurtado, who plays in the Portugal with Vitória de Guimarães.
You would think, as a neutral, that this match was done and dusted, but any Peruvian fan will tell you that when it comes to the national team, nothing is ever 100% until the final whistle. This point was proven moments later when Alberto “El Mudo” Rodriguez brought down Enner Valencia in the box. In a dramatic twist, the referee sent off the wrong man after he handed the other center back, Christian Ramos, a second yellow for the foul.
Valencia scored and once again every Peruvian had to go through at least 10 minutes of anguish as Peru held on 2-1 with 10 men on the pitch.
But just like the performance against Bolivia last week and Uruguay back in March, the visitors defended its lead with literally everything they had, securing a first win in Quito.
In the last six matches, Gareca’s team has only lost once (2-0 against Brazil) and from 18 points available, Peru has gained 13 and is on a four-match unbeaten run.
This is an incredible achievement, especially when you take into consideration that aside from Paolo Guerrero, this is a team without any well-known stars in the world. It's not completely unfounded, as last summer Peru won its Copa America Centenario group that featured Brazil and Ecuador before going out in heartbreaking penalties. Given South America's brutal qualifying campaign, though, Peru's rise has been eye-opening. Gareca has at his disposal an extremely young squad, and relatively new to the international scene. Flores, for example, is only 23, and Christian Cueva, the most talented of them all, is 25. Renato Tapia, an incredibly important anchor who plays in the Netherlands for Feyenoord, is merely 22.
There has also been a heavy focus on domestic-based names such as the smart right back, Aldo Corzo plays for Universitario de Deportes, while 22-year-old midfielder Wilder Cartagena features for Universidad San Martín.
But the real star of this show is Gareca.
The 59-year-old who played for Argentina in the early 1980’s may not be well known to those who solely follow the European game, but he is well regarded in South America, having coached 10 teams across the continent, including Independiente, Palmeiras and Universitario de Deportes in Peru.
His philosophy has completely transformed the Peruvian national team, where his message is simple: be professional, be disciplined and trust each other.
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He is also a smart tactician, one who identifies the biggest obstacles in the opposition and looks to overcome them through careful, patient build-up play. When Peru has the ball, there isn’t just one offensive mindset or one way of thinking; Gareca is incredibly versatile. Guerrero, who arguably holds the ball up front better than anyone in South America, will usually be the main target, but as proven against Bolivia when Peru had to play without him, Gareca changed things around, and focused more on a wide approach, placing the wingers at the center of almost every threat.
Peru is in good hands, and no matter what happens on the rest of the road to Russia, there is no doubt that he is the man to lead Peru for years to come. It's the least he can do for Peru after playing a big role in squashing its World Cup dreams more than 30 years ago.
In 1985, Peru and Argentina faced each other in Buenos Aires in the last qualifying fixture for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Argentina needed at least a point to qualify.
With nine minutes remaining, Peru led 2-1 and the visitors were ready to say goodbye to Mexico, but then came Gareca, who picked up a ball from inside the box and smashed it in.
It ended 2-2 and Argentina booked its ticket to the World Cup, one it would eventually win thanks to Maradona’s magical run. None of that would have happened had it not been for Gareca’s performance against Peru.
As for La Blanquirroja? Peru had to settle for a playoff match against Chile, lost both legs and failed to qualify. It hasn't since.
Some 32 years later, and once again it's Ricardo Gareca, the man they call “El Tigre,” acting as the protagonist in the story of Peru’s World Cup fate, and as if written in the stars, the penultimate and pivotal match comes at Argentina against Lionel Messi & Co.
But this time, he’s on Peru's side.