How Peru shocked the world reaching the 2019 Copa America Final
A miracle deferred
Well, this summer was quite fun. The 2019/20 European football season is almost here, but it’s almost like it never left. With Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT’s second successive women’s world cup title topping the pile, Algeria’s assumption of the title of African champions closely followed; especially after entering the tournament as underdogs and tactically dominating it. What about the celebrations that followed in the North African country, France and the rest of the world? That is something worth of a watch or a second one if you had already done so. All of Spain’s U-21 UEFA European Championship triumph, Ukraine’s U-20 FIFA World Cup win in Poland or Mexico’s record extending CONCACAF gold cup success over the United States Men’s National Team, kept us at the edge of our seats and gave us something to cherish, make memes, cry or throw banter about. There is actually another one.
No, it’s not Brazil ending their 12-year drought to win the Copa America in front of the ever so infectious and demanding Maracana fans, though that was also pretty cool, or the continuation of Messi and Argentina’s woes on the big stage. It is Peru. The “little” Peru. In the midst of the globally acclaimed South American football giants of Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia; it was Peru who earned the right to face Brazil in the 2019 final. It was obviously not a fairy-tale ending for the La Blanquirroja as the hosts stepped up to grab a deserved 3-1 victory and declared winners of the 46th edition of the tournament. The Peruvians were on the verge of achieving something close to Leicester’s 2015/16 Premier League title win or Zambia’s 2012 Africa Cup of Nations miracle, and we were all going to be witnesses.
This therefore calls for the need to reflect and learn how they made it.
The real beginning
It didn’t start with the Copa America 2019. Time and time again, whenever we see champions on the podium, more often than not, we are reminded of the indispensable success ingredients of character shaped through experience, desire and discipline to see it through. Such a big spotlight moment had actually been always coming for the Peruvians who made the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals in Russia, effectively ending a 30-year drought. Even better were their performances in the tournament, winning the praise of many neutrals who felt they weren’t at all boring to watch. Despite not reaching the knock-out stages in Russia, La Blanquirroja were by far the dominant side in their 1-0 opening loss to Denmark and tough opponents for eventual champions, France who managed only a narrow 1-0 victory over them. They got their dues in the final group stage match, where they put on the costumes and made a show of their 2-0 victory over the Australians, finishing on a high and returning home to a hero’s welcome in Lima. Their biggest win was the experience gained at the biggest stage and the lessons learnt which substantively make up the bulk of the reasons why they reached Maracana final 2019.
Road to the final
It wasn’t at all the best of starts by Peru in the 2019 Copa America tournament. A 3-0 friendly loss to Colombia just six days before the commencement of the tournament surely put them in the category of those not to expect much from. However, a 0-0 draw against Venezuela on opening day, followed by an expected 3-1 win over Bolivia gave them a lift but didn’t exactly raise eyebrows seeing that they were matches which they were expected to win or at least be comfortable in.
When you thought it would have gotten better, it got worse. Brazil put mud in their pudding. The record world cup winners did what they like doing and what’s demanded of them by their fans, with Firmino and Willian turning on the style to humiliate the Peruvians by 5 clear goals to nothing. It was only through the blessing of the calculator that La Blanquirroja qualified as one of the two best 3rd placed team from their group ahead of Japan. That second chance was really a blessing in disguise to Gareca’s men who started defying odds in the knockout stages.
A robust and disciplined tactical performance against the most successful team in the Copa America history, 15 time champions Uruguay in the quarter-final was enough to hold the 2018 world cup quarter-finalists to a 0-0 draw, eventually beating them on penalty shootouts. “Just a lucky park the bus performance” could have been the reaction of many onlookers. It became official that they actually mean business when they put three past the holders, Chile, who were on the hunt for a third consecutive title. They saw less of the ball but put all their chances to great use with Flores opening the scoring in the 21st minute, Yotun doubling the lead in the 38th minute before veteran Paolo Guerrero declared it a no contest in the 91st minute.
That is how they got us and everyone talking about them. Quite extraordinary for a nation who last appeared in the Copa America final back in 1975. Indeed, the current Peruvian national football team is what we could call a golden generation. But who’s behind all their exploits.
Gareca, el Tigre
One man, Ricardo Gareca. The 61-year-old has moved mountains during his four years in charge of the Peruvian national team and that has not really been a major surprise. The Argentine had a relatively successful football career as a player appearing for the likes of River Plate and Boca Juniors, which actually pales in comparison to his managerial one. Nicknamed el Tigre (the tiger) or el Flaco (the thin one) during his playing days, Gareca has indeed become a real tiger when it comes to tactics and ruthlessness. Before Peru, he had won numerous club titles that include the domestic league title in Peru and three championships in a four-year spell with Argentine club, Velez Sarsfield. He could have joined the elite company of Marcos Calderon and Jack Greenwell, the only two people to have led Peru to a Copa America title but the 3-1 loss to Brazil in the final stood in the way of that. His signature, committed; defensively meticulous; intelligent and ruthless approach of setting up teams has always given his sides chances against any opponent even though they are usually second-best in retaining possession. Such is how he has set-up Peru coupled with quick and smart-interplay which ensures they can hurt opponents at any of the few occasions they get the ball. During el Tigre’s time, Peru reached the Copa America semi-finals in 2015, eliminated Brazil in 2016 and also secured a 2018 FIFA World Cup finals spot after three decades. They are really on the up and there’s no telling how far they can still go provided the Argentine stays at the helm of their affairs.
Apart from captain and veteran striker, Paolo Guerrero who’s now 35-years of age, most of Peru’s headlining stars are in their mid to late twenties. This means that they have at least another four years to run and exhaust the experience they have gotten in this highly successful spell. Even better, the heights they have reached have definitely set a precedent of what’s achievable and generations which follow will be less afraid to dream big. Rest assured, this is the last we won’t hear of or be talking about the “little” Peru.