Peru: the old normality of being last in football
Six years ago, in mid-November, Peru woke up united and drunk. Their soccer team had qualified for a World Cup after a wait of almost four decades and for one night we stopped being that town divided in permanent crisis, on the edge of nowhere.
We surrender to ecstasy without shame. We toast with strangers. We fulfill bets. And we merged in an unrepeatable hug. The feat produced a score of books, a handful of movies and commercials, and monstrous T-shirt sales. Midday magazines became sports programs, and sports programs finally had something new to offer. We no longer lived in the past, like those who long for a single trip, a single job or a single great love.
In Russia 2018, the team went home in the first round with three points that didn't taste so bad: defeats against Denmark and France by the smallest difference, and victory against Australia. But, as a consolation, in each game the Peruvian touch was present with walls and dribbles. The dream continued the following year, when Argentine Ricardo Gareca's team achieved another milestone: playing in a Copa América final after 44 years. We didn't win the gold medal at the Maracaná against Brazil, but they already looked at us differently on the continent. A feeling closer to admiration and further away from compassion.
In 2022 a shock made us wake up: the playoff against Australia was lost and, with it, the possibility of playing in a second consecutive World Cup. But despite the bitterness—and a terrifying silence that spread throughout the country after failing in the penalty shootout—there was a consensus in the streets that Gareca and his technical command should continue. Agustín Lozano, president of the Peruvian Football Federation, did not believe so and, through some rudeness, managed to get him out.
His replacement was Juan Reynoso, a Peruvian coach with several national titles who in 2021 had won Cruz Azul champion in the Mexican league, ending a 23-year drought without lifting a title. Although his resume exhibited more than a short circuit with the press, he seemed to be the one. The fans, who at that time gave him the benefit of the doubt, today demand his head.
With the defeat against Bolivia in La Paz, Peru has once again been the bottom of South America. The qualifying position table is unobjectionable: last, with one point, four defeats and zero goals. According to statistician Mister Chip, this is the first team in the history of South American football to start the tournament without being able to score a goal in its first five games. And a goal, as is known, is a celebration and relief. It is the climax of this sport that was invented to sublimate wars and forget about worries for a while.
La Blanquirroja is not only the oldest team in the playoffs, with an average age of over 29 years, but it is cowardly in attack and weak in defense. It took him 571 minutes to make his first shot on goal, thanks to a header from the masked Lapadula in the 43rd minute of the first half against Bolivia. Cultivator of touch and unnecessary luxury, Peruvian soccer was characterized by providing spectacle, even in its worst moments. Even that has been taken away from him. Watching Reynoso's Peru is torture: it neither dazzles nor is it efficient. And, furthermore, he lost his rebellion. But above all he lost communion with the people. The relationship is broken and there seems to be no turning back.
In the last ten South American qualifiers, Peru placed at the bottom of the table on three occasions: heading to Italy 90, United States 94, and South Africa 2010. In the latter they only won three games and conceded 34 goals. For Germany 2006, we were ninth out of ten, thanks to Bolivia. For a long time, when it comes to football, we were grateful for the existence of that country with which we share Titicaca, chubby cheeks and a national background, among many other things. Today Bolivia, which shouted olé to us in the Hernando Siles de la Paz, is the one who values our presence. Peru is the absolute tail of the neighborhood. This Tuesday, in the face of a burning Venezuela, only a miracle is possible. The bubble was punctured. We have returned to the old normal.
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