The year was 1975 and the South American Championship had a new name: Copa América.
There would be no host nation and the matches would be played by 10 Conmebol nations between July and October across South America. Peru were experiencing their second golden era, and in retrospect it’s not outrageous to suggest that they had the best midfield in the world heading into the tournament. Led by the nation’s greatest ever player, Teofilo “Nene” Cubillas – who practically invented the artistry of the deceiving free-kick (sorry Dimitri Payet) – the squad had a supporting cast of some magical playmakers, who have now been forgotten by many football historians.
Hugo “Cholo” Sotil had just won La Liga with Johan Cruyff and Barcelona, and César “The Left-Footed Poet” – it sounds better in Spanish – Cueto, was a human highlight reel. Above talent, however, this was primarily a team who implemented a quintessential Peruvian trait: garra, or courage. Peru played with a carefree philosophy, attacking from kick-off as if they were 3-0 down. That may seem like a familiar trait for many South American countries, but La Blanquirroja took it to another level: they simply did not care who the opposition was. In 1975 their garra helped them beat Brazil in semi-finals and Colombia in the final to lift the trophy for only the second time in their history.
Fast forward to this summer’s Copa – where a controversial victory over Brazil again sees Peru face Colombia in Friday night’s quarter-final – and the similarities between this team and the heroes from the 1970s are striking, not so much in talent but in ideology. Since his appointment, Ricardo Gareca, Peru’s Argentinian manager, wanted to make one thing clear: regardless of tactics and delivery, from a physical standpoint, leave everything on the field. As simple as that attitude may seem, it can be a difficult concept to achieve if you don’t have players with the right mindset (Leicester City being a perfect example). So for this tournament, Gareca decided to prioritize attitude and garra over reputation when picking his team. Gareca’s ultimate goal is reaching the World Cup, and with qualifiers resuming in September, the Centenario is the perfect audition to see who fits with his philosophy.
From an international perspective, this squad is highly inexperienced. Seventeen of the 23 squad members play their club football in Peru’s Primera División, and against Brazil, nine starters had fewer than 10 caps. This is a significant contrast with other teams, who have a large number of European-based players: even Haiti entered this tournament with more experience.
The work-rate from the young, energetic core has helped propel Peru so far, but the principal shining moments have come from two experienced players who bring as much quality to the squad as they do leadership. Before the tournament started Christian Cueva, the attacking midfielder who plays like he has three lungs, was highlighted as one to watch: his ability to change direction should be studied for research. But all eyes are on the dramatically skillful Paolo Guerrero, Copa América’s leading scorer in the last two tournaments. The captain has the fearlessness of Atahualpa, spearheading the line like a Peruvian Gerd Müller. His goal against Haiti cemented his place in history, as he surpassed Cubillas to become the nation’s all-time leading scorer with 27.
So with Brazil vanquished comes the the question: how will Peru do on Friday against the supremely athletic Colombia? José Pekerman is one of the smartest managers in world football, and controlling James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado will be no easy task. And David Ospina may play Robin to Peter Cech’s Batman for Arsenal but for his country no one commands more presence than the 27-year old stopper from Medellin. The ex-Atletico Nacional player has only conceded one goal in 180 minutes of play for his country.
History, however, is on Peru’s side. In 2011’s Copa América, the nations met in the quarter-finals and last year they were in the same group. Los Cafeteros failed to win either game. But that was then and this is now, and the romanticism that comes with the knockout stages paints a simple picture: how we got here means nothing, everyone is blessed with a clean slate.
But Peruvians – and I count myself among their number – believe that we can progress: after all, not many people thought we’d get this far in the first place. The appetite is certainly there: while many games in this tournament have been played in half-empty stadiums Friday’s quarter-final is a sell-out, with more than 80,000 fans packed into the New Jersey’s Metlife Stadium. More than a few of them will be dreaming of a repeat of 1975.
This article was written by Luis Miguel Echegaray, for theguardian.com on Friday 17th June 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010