If ever you are to read a Lonely Planet guidebook for information on a particular country, you will find a section titled ´National Psyche´ that essentially tries to capture the general mindset of a population of millions. In the most recent guide to Peru, the people are described amongst other things as ´stoic´ ´humorous´and full of ´hope.´ If, like myself, you arrived in this most diverse of lands in time to witness the 6-0 beating dished out to Peru by Uruguay in the latest round of South American World Cup qualifiers however, this choice of adjectives would be way down the list of descriptive words used to encapsulate the emotions currently coursing through the veins of fans.
´Embarrassment!!´ roared leading daily newspaper Peru 21. ´How do we rescue our national game?´ asked Correo fearfully. The frenetic sense of angst and injustice was summed up perfectly by one journalist. ´It is not fair that our children are forced to watch such a disgrace as this,´ he wrote, as if the humiliating performance produced by the national team was some sort of disgusting, preordained insult aimed at the people of Peru.
It certainly was a shameful display though, whichever way you look at it. The result leaves Las Rojiblancas rock bottom of the qualification group with just three points from six games and more or less guarantees that they will not be invited to the party in South Africa come June 2010. In ninety minutes they managed just 15% (fifteen!!) possession. And though they have only ever qualified for the World Cup four times, with their last appearance as far back as 1982, the nation´s current, pitiful predicament has caused outrage amongst supporters.
From Montevideo the team were welcomed back at Jorge Chavez airport in Lima to a barrage of insults. Fans hurled eggs and orange peels at the team bus. Pockets of angry Peruvians furiously attempted to breach the police blockades in order to make their feelings known to the players. Even Alan Garcia, President of Peru, felt incensed enough to weigh in with his two cents worth. “I’m not the one to ask the officials or the coach to leave, but if I were one of them, I’m sure I would have been thinking about that. This is shameful” he stated. And all this after the national press had built up to the Uruguay game with such bravado, as shown in the headline picture. El Bocon´s ´Kill or be killed´ slogan clearly failed in its desired effect. If anyone it was the men in red and white whose hopes died away, and the post-mortem is now being publicly and graphically played out in the public domain.
Though far from one of South America´s superpowers, football is a source of great passion in Peru and people clearly take their interest in the game very seriously. On the streets of Lima, children and adults alike don football shirts of the top European clubs, while shirts of the local clubs Alianza Lima, Universitario and Sporting Cristal are also commonly on display. Though the country has few renowned international stars (one of their greatest and most important players – Nolberto Solano, has just been discarded by West Ham, one – Claudio Pizarro, is well and truly out of favour at Chelsea), this has in no way dimmed the enthusiasm for the game in Peru, and often one of the first things friendly locals are keen to discover upon meeting Europeans is exactly what team they support. Though clasicos between the two most successful and best supported clubs Alianza Lima and Universitario are often sell-outs, that the domestic league and national team are not as distinctive as people would perhaps like affords them the opportunity to cast their eyes further afield at the game around the world, and this results in a set of people that are generally quite well-informed about football across the globe. It was a Peruvian taxi driver, for example, that I witnessed inform a Danish Arsenal fan about AC Milan´s approach for Emmanuel Adebayor.
Time for reform
In recent months, the Montevideo debacle has not been the only time that the Peruvian national team has disgraced itself. Prior to Los Incas 5-1 loss to Ecuador in Quito back in November 2007, four players were indefinitely suspended from international duty by coach Jose ´Chemo´ Del Solar over a hotel party scandal. Peru has a strong tabloid press, and it no doubt delighted in breaking the story that Jefferson Farfan, Andres Mendoza, Santiago Acasiete and Claudio Pizarro were caught hosting an alcohol-fuelled party with several women after a 1-1 draw with Brazil in Lima. Currently all four of them still remain suspended from action (on the pitch that is).
At present, with the recriminations and finger-pointing reminiscent of England´s own national team crisis circa November 2007, it remains to be seen in which direction Peru heads as it attempts to get its house back in order. Del Solar will almost certainly lose his job on the back of a thus far dreadful campaign. Other coaching personnel may also leave the national setup. But the problems run far deeper than just a simple cosmetic managerial change. The whole system is being scrutinised, from the country´s youth teams and colleges right up to those in charge at the Peruvian football federation including president Manuel Burga. Juvenal Silva, the head of the country’s World Cup Commission, has already announced his intention to resign and with the public angrily searching for answers, a few more people in power may well fall by their swords before the air of acrimony and malcontent dies down.
As one other leading sports journalist in Peru put it, ´The whole system must be changed, now.´