The 1970s were a cataclysmic decade for South American football. World Cup triumphs for Brazil and Argentina went some way to masking the huge stylistic changes that were enforced upon the continent's national teams by tactical development in Europe.
Brazil’s seminal class of ‘70 are often eulogised as the best side to ever step onto a football field whilst Menotti’s high-tempo version of the traditional Argentine passing game saw the host nation (literally) brought up to speed with developments in the European game.
Between these two triumphs came a transitional for the traditional powers, with the most notable lesson coming at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany where the pace and fluidity of Total Football made even Brazil realise that fundamental change was necessary. The decade also saw an unlikely golden period for one of the continent’s perennial also-rans.
For most, the Peruvian side of the 1970s conjures up memories of its alleged collusion with the Argentine military junta at the 1978 World Cup (they capitulated 6-0 to Argentina in a game Argentina needed to win by 4 clear goals). Another abiding memory (particularly for Scottish fans) was the sublime outside of the boot free-kick by Teófilo Cubillas. The Peruvian's moment of inspiration set the tone for another uphill struggle for the Tartan Army and left Ally MacLeod’s infamous boast that his team would win the World Cup then retain it look rather hollow. The rest of the Scottish campaign would pan out in familiar fashion, from the downright dreadful 1-1 draw with Iran, to the traditional glorious failure overcoming an excellent Holland side 3-2 with Archie Gemmill’s solo strike (immortalised in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting) proving decisive.
Our collective memory of old games, of course is often limited to major moments in games or to what we want to remember: a few seconds of genius, like the Cubillas free-kick, or the Gemmill wonder-strike, and failing that it tends to be distorted by petty nationalism, personal bias or bombastic media exaggeration of events.
The Peruvian side of the 70s, perhaps owing to their lack of success before and after, are subject to the latter tendency. Media hyperbole in their homeland has contributed to making them untouchables, elevated to legend status as an example of how the game should be played thus extrapolating fact from myth becomes increasingly difficult.
Fortunately for them, they left irrefutable evidence of their calibre in the 1975 Copa America triumph, defeating Brazil in Belo Horizonte along the way before finally despatching Colombia in the final at the 3rd attempt in a play-off game, bizarrely played in the then football backwater of Caracas, Venezuela.
The exploits of the 1970s Peruvian national team at the World Cup and in the Copa America both came at difficult moments for the impoverished Peruvian people.
Just days before the 1970 World Cup Peru suffered a devastating earthquake that left some 70,000 people dead and over a million homeless. Cubillas, in an interview years later, spoke of how he felt that, though trivial by comparison to the 1970 tragedy, he and his team-mates felt that they had, at least, done something to raise the spirits of his people in their darkest hour.
The Peruvian side qualified for Mexico '70 by eliminating the Argentines in their own backyard and after cruising through the group stage went down 4-2 in an exhilarating showdown with neighbours Brazil. They proved it was no fluke in Argentina '78 gaining a hugely creditable draw with finalists Holland on the way to the qualification for the second group phase, where they strangely capitulated against the hosts. On each occasion they reached the last eight and even the notoriously cynical Peruvian media had to concede that the team's performance had been a success.
In the year of the 1975 Copa America triumph Peru played against the backdrop of a right-wing military coup known as El Tacnazo (so named as it occurred in the Southern City of Tacna) with human rights looking more fragile by the day and spiralling political instability that would wind up in the emergence of a hugely contentious Maoist Guerrilla insurgency, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) by the end of the decade. The Peruvian side gave the nation something to be proud of on the international stage, and provided a much needed distraction from events in their homeland.
In the 1970s Peru had a collection of players genuinely capable of not only beating anyone on their day, but matching anyone in the style stakes too, with their eye-catching, imaginative one-touch football. Indeed the 3-1 victory over Brazil in the 1975 Copa America was achieved not with the negative style many have employed to neutralise the Verde-Amarelo, but ‘fighting fire with fire’ taking the game to the world’s most emblematic football nation.
Peru’s midfield was touted as being the best in the world at the time with Hugo Sotil, who won a La Liga title in the same team as Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, Teofilo Cubillas, the country’s all-time leading goalscorer and most loved player and finally César Cueto, known as el poeta de la zurda, which literally translated would be the left-footed poet, but perhaps more idiomatically in equally nonsensical English footballing parlance might be something like ‘he of the cultured left-foot’ (an expression we often use in English, presumably to acknowledge that the foot was fully versed in all seven volumes of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu).
Allied to this assortment of flair players, the back line was ably marshalled by the man unpromisingly nicknamed el ciego (the blind man) so named on account of his acute myopia, (he wore contacts on the pitch, he was actually rather good) Juan Carlos Oblitas and El Capitán de America (America’s Captain, not to be confused with this Captain) Héctor Chumpitaz.
By the 1982 World Cup, held in Spain, the powers of the golden generation were beginning to dwindle. After a disappointing stalemate with Cameroon and a creditable 1-1 draw with eventual winners Italy, Peru were torn apart by the stylish and incisive Polish duo of Lato and Boniek losing 5-1 and sadly haven’t been seen at the tournament since. Cubillas remains to this day one of only two players who have scored 5 goals at two World Cups, the other being Miroslav Klose.
The fleeting nature of Peru’s success, one fears, can be linked to the desperate state of the country’s club game. It is no coincidence that none of Peru’s club sides has ever won the Copa Libertadores, and the country has only one Copa Sudamericana, won by provincial Cienciano as late as 2003.
The Peruvian League has been won three times in recent years by a university team that only formed in 2004. Universidad San Martin de Porres have recently pulled out of the Peruvian League in protest at the ineptitude of the Peruvian FA and the unchecked amassing of debts by the traditional big clubs like Alianza Lima.
The current travails in the financial administration of Peruvian club football go some way to explaining why youth development and Peru’s national team have been in stagnation for so long.
Cubillas, an increasingly influential figure in the Peruvian game, speaks highly of the technical level of the current Peruvian players, arguing that players like Farfan, Pizarro and Guerrero are every bit as good as their predecessors. However, surely the more pressing problem is the administration of the clubs, which has seen de-motivated players go unpaid for months and as an inevitable consequence the country’s clubs have become less competitive in continental competition.
Despite the complex panorama of Peruvian Football, Cubillas continues to repeat the comment he made the day he retired from the game, leaving no doubt about his national pride and summarising the spirit of his team: ‘Si volviera a nacer volvería a jugar a la pelota, empezaría en el Alianza Lima y volvería a nacer en el Perú (If I could be live my life again I wouldn’t change anything, I’d be a footballer, I’d be Peruvian, and I’d start at Alianza Lima).’ Peru’s golden generation more than merit their place in Latin American Football folklore.
You can read more from Mark at his blog.