Copa America 2011
“So where is your name from?”
“Oh it’s Peruvian”
One of the first times I met the young lady who would, years later, become my fiancé, was spent discussing her roots. When I heard “Peru” the first thing that sprung to mind was the footballer Nolberto Solano. I can’t help it. Most normal people think of the obvious wonder of the world, Machu Picchu, but there I was associating the country with a diminutive right midfielder who was at the time showing off his talents at Newcastle United.
Years later and I was sat on the sofa that we’d bought together from Argos, Martha was now my fiancé and we were nervously cheering on the Peruvian national team in an unlikely Copa America Quarter Final match against Columbia. In the years that have gone between I have been slowly following the progress of one of the smallest countries on the footballing map. It’s not been pretty to say the least.
For the 2006 World Cup, they finished eighth in the tough qualifying campaign that sees them forever in a group with the likes of Brazil and Argentina. The Copa America has similar pitfalls and Peru were eliminated at the Quarter Final stage of the 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2007 events. The 2010 World Cup qualifiers saw a new low with Peru finishing rock bottom of the qualifying group after scandals involving members of the squad partying rather than preparing for games and some damaging defeats.
But the tide appears now to be turning. A new man in charge, former Paraguay and Panathinaikos coach Sergio Markarian, has come in with fresh ideas and tactical nous along with an ambition to reach the World Cup proper for the first time since 1982.
It was perhaps rash of me to not expect the progress that’s occurred over the last couple of weeks and after Peru collected four points from a tough group of the Copa America containing Chile, Uruguay and Mexico, they finished as one of the “Best Third Place” sides and qualified for the Quarter Finals for the fifth time in successive competitions.
An encounter with Columbia promised to be tight and I actually started becoming nervous for my new second country as the game wore on. Markarian employed a five man wall in midfield with Paolo Guerrero acting as the loan striker. The impressive Juan Vargas was pulling some strings in a creative sense from midfield and slowly but surely helped Peru to impose themselves on the Columbians.
A missed penalty from Columbia’s Radamel Falcao of FC Porto and two strikes of the woodwork made it seem like luck was on Peru’s side and they gloriously pushed on in extra time to seal a dramatic victory and earn a spot in the semi-finals. A goalkeeping error from Columbia keeper Luis Martinez gifted the first goal to Carlos Lobaton before Vargas rifled in the second to put it beyond any doubt.
As Peruvian flags waved in joy I couldn’t help but feel proud and delighted for half of my family that would have been watching on the other side of the world and some in England. After years of underachievement it puts into some perspective the ‘troubles’ that bestow the English national game as time and again the media circus that surrounds the team overrides World Cups and European Championships.
It reminded me that behind the glamour and glitz of the top nations in the world are so many more that keep coming back year on year to face troubling qualification for World Cups and the like. It also reminded me that every now and then something special can happen when one of these underdogs rises up and creates their own history, is thrust into the consciousness of the world and has a moment in the spotlight that they’ve waited years and years for.
For Peru, their time has come and should they complete an astonishing tournament by reaching the final tonight it would be worth all those years of pain for their followers. After what we’ve seen so far, you really wouldn’t want to bet against it.
So good luck to you tonight Peru!