Peru is two matches away from qualifying for the biggest international tournament of them all, the World Cup. This means that Peruvian fans have yet to start thinking about what other team they’re going to support in June, but more importantly, those fans–and Peru’s national team–have yet to stash away their red-and-white jerseys for the next four years. Russia 2018 feels so close, despite teeny major setbacks, that I can taste the beet-tainted ensalada rusa my mom insists on making every Thanksgiving. It’s like all the dots are connecting.
And if you’re wondering why it’s a huge deal, it’s because Peru hasn’t qualified since 1982. The last qualifying match against Colombia on October 10 was declared a public sector holiday in Peru just so Peruvians wouldn’t have to scramble to make it home in time to catch the game. That’s how big of a deal this qualification is.
I recently purchased my first official Peru home jersey, thanks to my cousin who just came back from Lima. It took me a while. The lovely knockoff with one red stripe, the one my dad bought me in my teens, still fit 15 years later so I wasn’t in a rush. But if this is the beginning of La Blanquirroja being a solid contender in World Cup qualifiers in my lifetime, I needed to upgrade. I wore the jersey the first day I got it on and its vibrant red sash made its 3,648-mile trek worth it.
Peru’s uniforms are simple. All white with a diagonal red stripe going down from the left shoulder to the right hip on the front and back of the jersey, forming a sash—like the winner of a beauty pageant, minus the hairspray but with even more regality. Subtle red trimming here and there. The logos aren’t prominent. Altogether, the design is clean and visually pleasing.
And that trademark look hasn’t changed much over the past 80 years. Unfortunately, the classic red sash wasn’t present the first time Peru participated, by invitation, to the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay in 1930. The team was on the second go-around at their kit and had just moved from horizontally red-striped jersey shirts to a white jersey shirts with red collars, white shorts and black socks. The sash wouldn’t come for another six years as the team’s fourth and final kit, while Peru wouldn’t participate in another World Cup until 1970.
Peru’s regal red-and-white uniforms became timeless as they made their television debut, broadcasted live around the world and in color.
Decades before making its World Cup premiere, the iconic red-sashed jerseys had faced Hitler and made its debut in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. With Germany eliminated, Peru played the Aryan race’s last hope Austria in a controversial match and won 4-2, but a pitch invasion led to the match being abandoned. A replay was ordered, but La Bicolor packed up and left. According to The Guardian, “the Peruvians decried a Nazi conspiracy, saying the pitch invasion was obviously staged to sabotage a South American victory that would have been all the more unpalatable for the host regime because five of the Peruvian players were black.”
“With this jersey, Peru traveled to Berlin to continue writing legends: the face-off with Hitler and the withdrawal from the Olympic games turned into moral triumph,” wrote Peruvian historian and sports journalist Jaime Pulgar Vidal Otálora. Peru also won their first Copa America in 1939 with their freshly minted look. It was a taste of glory that they wouldn’t get to savor for another 30 years.
La Blanquirroja—with its dream team that included Teófilo Cubillas, Héctor Chumpitaz, Hugo Sotil, Ramón Mifflin—qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 1970, and Peru’s regal red-and-white uniforms became timeless as they made their television debut, broadcasted live around the world and in color. The shirts featured the iconic red sash, wide and oozing with pride like it carried the nation’s hopes within its deep red color. The first game took place two days after Peru suffered its deadliest earthquake ever, which claimed more than 50,000 lives. In a state of national mourning, their 3-2 win over Bulgaria brought light to the Peruvian people.
Peru advanced to the quarterfinals where they eventually were knocked out by Brazil in a high-stakes battle that ended in 4-2. Pelé and Mifflin swapped jerseys and the Brazilian star left the field with his own iconic red-and-white shirt.
The uniform even evoked emotions from those living outside of Peru. “Peru’s uniform that year was elegant… The shirt featured a red diagonal stripe on a plain white shirt, a collar that was retro even in 1970, and there wasn’t a sportswear manufacturer’s logo in sight,” wrote Christopher Turpin, who is currently NPR’s Vice President of News Programming and Operations. He reminisced about falling in love with Peru’s uniform design after collecting the entire set of World Cup soccer cards as a youth in England. “To this day, I still think it’s the beautiful game’s most beautiful shirt.”
That was the beginning of Peru’s glorious era. In 1975, Peru won their second Copa America title. A few years after that, Peru played in the World Cup in 1978 and, then, for the fourth and final time in 1982.
“The national team’s jersey has been part of Peru’s identity so much so that many think it’s a national symbol.”
ESPN writer Roger Bennett mused about Peru’s 1978 World Cup jerseys, and claimed them to be the best World Cup jersey of all time. “The stark slash slicing through the shirt was a simple yet strikingly effective piece of design,” wrote Bennett. “The team was appalling, but if soccer were scored like figure skating, and points were factored in for style, Peru would, without a doubt, have instantly been hailed as world champion.”
Since 1982, soccer’s best-kept secret has been sitting in the closets of Peru fans every four years when the World Cup rolls around. Many don’t even know that the designs of the uniforms have been praised as iconic. “The national team’s jersey has been part of Peru’s identity so much so that many think it’s a national symbol,” wrote Vidal Otálora, the historian.
Since Peru has been so close to qualifying over the past few months, sales of the team’s official jerseys have increased by more than 900%, my own included. In a few days, Peru is up against New Zealand in the inter-confederation play-offs, which will send one team to represent their country among the world’s best-playing nations. Wearing the jersey and knowing the nostalgia it evokes among many, it all adds to the excitement of possibly going to the World Cup since we’re overdue for another golden era.