Peru Is On the Verge of Making the World Cup for the First Time in 36 Years

Lead Photo: Peru's players pose for a photo before a match between Brazil and Peru as part of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifiers. Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Peru's players pose for a photo before a match between Brazil and Peru as part of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifiers. Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images
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After 6 matches in this round of CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying, Peru’s national team had tallied up an unimpressive 4 points, with one of those coming through a disappointing 2-2 home draw against current bottom feeders Venezuela. It looked like another disappointing qualifying campaign for the Peruvians, who juxtapose decent Copa America performances–3rd place in both 2011 and 2015–with failed bids to go to the World Cup.

However, the very next match would be the turning point for the Peruvians, only no one knew it at the time. Despite losing 2-0 against Bolivia in the impossible conditions of La Paz, Peru was later awarded the full 3 points for a win after it was found that Bolivian player Nelson Cabrera was ineligible, due to having played for Paraguay, the country of his birth. Including the points for that win, Peru then picked up 20 points in the following 10 matches, shooting up all the way to 4th in the table. That’s important because 4th is the final automatic qualifying spot; 5th (currently Argentina) has to play vs the winner of Oceania qualifying, which is, as per usual, New Zealand.

Behind the powerful runs and tactical finishing of star striker Paolo Guerrero, Peru has looked like a different team since the calendar flipped to 2017; despite starting the year’s qualifying with another disappointing 2-2 draw vs. Venezuela, the Peruvians have taken 3 points from Uruguay, Bolivia, and Ecuador (in Quito). Overall, their offense has scored 26 goals in qualifying, the third most in the region after top 2 sides Brazil and Uruguay, and both Guerrero and winger Edinson Flores are tied for third with 5 goals a piece. Peru has also been lucky with results; they got the very unlikely help from Venezuela, who tied Argentina 1-1 in Buenos Aires, and from both Paraguay and Bolivia, who handed Chile two straight losses in matchdays 15 and 16.

If there’s one thing that could ruin Peru’s dreams of the World Cup, however, it’s their defense, which has been the biggest reason why Peru isn’t even higher on the table. They’ve allowed 26 goals in 16 games, which is the third-most in the region, after the bottom-of-the-table duo of Venezuela and Bolivia. It’s that same defense that had them down to Venezuela 2-0 both games, only for the offense to rescue them with equalizers in the second half. And it’s that defense that will now have to contend with Argentina’s ridiculous talent in attack, centered as always around the incomparable Lionel Messi.

The last Peru team to earn a trip to soccer’s biggest party was in 1982, but they could have made it the very next edition if not for Argentina and Ricardo Gareca, the forward who scored an equalizer goal that knocked the Peruvians out of the top spot in group 1–and the automatic qualification that comes with that. Peru would go on to lose to Chile in the playoff round, and they haven’t really sniffed a World Cup since, aside from the 1998 qualifiers, which saw them lose 4-0 to Chile on the second-to-last match day after players were harassed by Chilean fans the night before the game.

In a cosmic turn of events, Gareca is involved yet again in a crucial Argentina-Peru match, only now, he’s coaching Los Incas against his struggling homeland’s side. Gareca took over Peru shortly before the 2015 Copa America in Chile, and turned a side that had been struggling into the third-place finishers at the continental tournament. That was followed by a less impressive yet still surprising performance at the Copa America Centenario in the US the following year, where they topped a group featuring Ecuador and Brazil; they would go on to lose in penalties to Colombia in the quartefinals.

The historical overtones of Thursday’s key matchup against Argentina don’t stop with just Gareca’s involvement, either. The last time Argentina did not make a World Cup was in 1970, when they drew 2-2 against Peru at La Bombonera in Buenos Aires. Thursday night’s game is at, you guessed it, La Bombonera, and while a draw wouldn’t be the worst result for either team, Argentina could really use the confidence boost from a clean and decisive win at the country’s most formidable soccer temple. Standing in its way will be a team led by one of its forgotten heroes from days past; Gareca’s goal was such an anomaly because he only received 20 caps for the Albiceleste, scoring 5 goals. He wasn’t even brought to the 1986 World Cup, despite his heroics, and we all remember what happened during that tournament. In case you don’t, Maradona will never let you forget.

So, despite the awkwardness that could arise from possibly eliminating his homeland from the World Cup, Gareca will likely be doubly motivated to lead his charges into the fortress of Boca, hoping for at least the point that would put them in pole position to make their first World Cup in 36 years. No pressure.