Peru : An Eternal Journey from the Ruins to the Crown
Srinwantu Dey turns back the pages of history to depict the great journey of Peru from the tragedy of earthquake and military insurgence to become the champion of South America. You can read the other stories of the Copa America series here
It was 31st May, 1970. Following the opening ceremony of World Cup 1970, host nation Mexico faced the Soviet Union on a bright afternoon. The whole world was celebrating the grand inauguration of the greatest show on earth. The small cities, villages and towns of Ancash region of Peru were no exception. Thousands tuned in to the World Cup game on the radio while few had gathered in the ‘La Pampa’ stadium to catch a local football game. The mood was vibrant but almost everything changed in merely 45 seconds. The most catastrophic natural disaster ever recorded in the history of Peru shocked mankind. A devastating earthquake of magnitude 7.9 followed by an equally destructive landslide wiped away the cities and caused 70,000 deaths. Within a minute, Peru went from celebration to a state of absolute horror, tragedy and shock.
Meanwhile, Peru’s golden generation was emerging and 1970 was the first time they exhibited their talent at the world stage. Just two days after the catastrophe, Peru fielded their team in the World Cup against a decent Bulgarian side that included one of their all-time greats, the inspirational Hristo Bonev. However, Peru found themselves trailing by two goals within 50 minutes. This was the time, La Blanquirroja  started their greatest ever come-back; as Brian Glanville stated, “the elusive dribbling of Cubillas, the powerful breaks from the back four of Héctor Chumpitaz, the running of Sotil and Gallardo, turned the tide”. Peru eventually won the match 3-2 and announced themselves at the greatest podium of football. Why did I name this as ‘the greatest comeback’? It was not just about the game; their football journey was an inspiration for an earthquake-devastated nation. “It was a moment of terrible suffering,” Teófilo Cubillas, years later revealed in an interview, “We were determined to return some happiness to the Peruvian people by giving them a victory.” The game against Bulgaria was just the beginning– the golden generation of Peru enthralled the world for the next decade. They challenged the world in 1970 and 1978 World Cups but their greatest achievement came when they were crowned the 1975 Copa America champions.
The 1975 edition of the Copa América was a landmark in the history of South American football. The tournament changed its name from ‘South American Championship’ to Copa América and for the first time all ten CONMEBOL countries participated. There was no fixed host nation this time, and all matches were played over three months in different countries. Peru came into the tournament with the disappointment of not qualifying for the 1974 World Cup, despite having a brilliant team. The nation still had not recovered from the Ancash tragedy. In addition to that their homeland was in a state of miserable political dilemma – the left wing general of the revolutionary government, Juan Alvarado, was about to be dethroned by the prominent military insurgence nicknamed ‘El Tacnazo’. Peruvians, amidst the dark hour, were looking for some respite.
War of the Pacific
Peru were placed along with Chile and Bolivia in the Group Stage, where they had to play home and away matches to proceed to the semi-final. In the inaugural game, Peru drew 1-1 with Chile in Santiago, Percy Rojas scoring the first goal of the tournament for Peru. In the next game Peru beat Bolivia by a solitary goal scored by Oswaldo Ramírez in front of a hostile home crowd in the Bolivia highlands. The next game was in Lima in front of 40,000 spectators. Peru demolished the Bolivian challenge by playing breath-taking football with goals from Ramírez, César Cueto and Juan Carlos Oblitas. The final group match against Chile became the decider.
Peru and Chile are the two nations who savour a century old football rivalry known as Clásico del Pacífico – the Classic of the Pacific. Needless to say the final group game set up a grand stage for both the nations to put one over their enemies. Peru started the game in front of another packed gallery at the home of Alianza Lima and took an early lead through a goal from Percy Rojas. In the 32nd minute, Percy Rojas fooled the Chilean defence again and sent a cross from the right wing to Oblitas – who took three touches and sent the ball into the net with a sublime bicycle kick (chalacha). This goal was not only an important step towards the Cup glory, but it also assumed greater significance as he scored the goal against such fierce rivals with whom there has been a historic debate over which of those nations invented the bicycle kick. The whole country was jubilant and it is considered among the most iconic goals in Copa America history. Soon Teófilo Cubillas made the score 3-0 and Peru eventually progressed to the next round despite a late consolation goal from Chile.
He scored the goal against such fierce rivals with whom there has been a historic debate over which of those nations invented the bicycle kick
The girl named Veronica
The next opposition was the rejigged Brazilian team. Truly, they were not even close to the great generation of Seleção of the last decade, but on the other hand Peru were blessed with some stylish ball players. Pelé was not there anymore, the South Americans were now mesmerized by the Peruvian Pelé – Teófilo Cubillas. The sublime attacking midfielder known as ‘El Nene’ (the kid) was the star player of FC Porto at that time. “Don’t worry, I have a successor and he’s called Teófilo Cubillas”, Pelé said once in an interview after his last World Cup triumph. But then again, Brazil was still carrying their high pedigree. They had smashed 10 goals past Venezuela in two matches and defeated César Luis Menotti‘s Argentina twice who boasted with players like Mario Kempes and Leopoldo Luque. The first game of the two legged tie was played in front of 75,000 spectators at Estádio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte. The game was poised at 1-1 until the 82nd minute with one goal each from Enrique Casaretto and Roberto Batata. Peru earned a free-kick just outside the box and Teófilo Cubillas magnificently curled the ball to the far top corner to give a slender lead to Peru. Casaretto scored another thunderous goal in the dying minutes to give Peru a healthy lead of 3-1 before the home game. La Blanquirroja were already one foot into the final after this remarkable performance on Brazilian soil. How colossal the achievement was? For the record, this was the last time Brazil lost any competitive game at home (68 matches, 39 years) before their 1-7 mauling by Germany in 2014.
The fairy-tale was however close to collapsing in Lima. Brazil staged a remarkable comeback by winning the return leg 0-2, which meant that the winner would have to be decided by lottery. Hector Chumpitaz, known as Captain America, deserves special mention here;he led the Peruvian defence for the last 30 minutes to repel the strong Brazilian attack and keep the aggregate score 3-3. Football confederations of Brazil and Peru determined that the lottery would be chaired by the then head of the South American Football Confederation (CSF) Teófilo Salinas, who incidentally was a Peruvian and her daughter Veronica was chosen to draw the ballot. Veronica, a schoolgirl in grey uniform who had no great passion for football – probably the only one in family who was not a fan of the local Alianza Lima club, became the point of attraction in front of a 35,000 strong crowd. She had to choose from two paper ballots each containing the names of one contesting nation. The country erupted in joy when Veronica chose the urn containing the name ‘Peru’ and they advanced to the final to face Colombia. Veronica became the most loved name in Peru, overnight. There are conspiracy theories as well behind the whole saga. Few of the sources claim that, clever Teófilo Salinas had already refrigerated the urn containing the Peru’s ballot and Veronica was instructed to choose the cooler one. Two of the Peruvian players, Percy Rojas and “Baker” Diaz, years later commented once about the cold-ball scandal – “I am not aware, but the legend says that Salinas began to cool the ballot before the draw and the girl picked up the cooler. The important thing is that Peru was in the final and everything else is speculation.”
Final Glory & the Great Escape from Catalonia
Peru was on the final step of a historic landmark. After 36 long years they were on the verge of winning the South American footballing pinnacle. Last time they had won the championship was during the legendary Jack Greenwell’s reign in 1939. It would be a great achievement and inspiration for the country, for the people who were still recovering from the tragedy of the horrible earthquake five years ago and still suffering the unrest of military insurgence in their homeland. By the time Peru reached the final, General Velasco had already made his last speech, declaring his verdict not to resist the rebellion because “Peruvians cannot fight against each other“. The national football team of Peru showed their great harmony, will power and love for the nation to restore pride to their people.
Peru suffered an initial setback when Colombia emerged victorious in the first game of the two legged final at Bogotá with a solitary goal by Castro. Peru were without their best player Teófilo Cubillas and their other star performer Hugo Sotil was yet to play in the tournament. It was a tough situation for the experienced tactician Marcos Calderón. However, in the next match his team fought back in front of the home crowd with two goals from Oblitas and Cachito Ramirez. The two legged final was not to be decided by aggregate score it stood at one win each, which forced a final play off encounter in Caracas, Venezuela. This time Calderón had his genius – the great Teófilo Cubillas – back in the squad; Hector ‘Captain America’ Chumpitaz as usual was solid in the defence; however the other diamond of ‘Holy Trinity’ was still missing. Hugo Sotil was yet to make an appearance.
The great partnership of Hugo Sotil and Cubillas was renowned in the 1970s. Sotil, fondly known as ‘El Cholo’, was FC Barcelona’s number ten then alongside Johan Cruyff during the reign of Rinus Michels. Although his performance was dazzling in Blaugrana colors, he was slowly losing his position in the Barcelona team after the arrival of Dutch superstar Johan Neeskens. Also his nightlife exploits earned him the nickname ‘King of Mambo’. It was the time when European club authorities used to decide player’s fate for national duty and Rinus Michels particularly was very strict about it. He didn’t let Sotil to leave for the entire Copa America tournament which spanned almost three months. He didn’t release Cruyff and Neeskens as well for a friendly against Italy a week before. However, this adverse situation couldn’t keep ‘El Cholo’ down. He checked the league fixture, packed his kits and took a cab secretly to reach El Prat Airport and flew to Venezuela via Madrid on the match day. In an interview he quipped, “I was not going for the prize not for the money, but because I wanted to give something to the country.” It was for the first time Sotil combined with Cubillas in the tournament and in the 25th minute he picked up a loose ball and scored the only goal of the game with a stunning volley. Another fine performance from Hector Chumpitaz kept the clean-sheet and Peru became the South American champion after 36 years.
“I was not going for the prize not for the money, but because I wanted to give something to the country.”
The risk, Hugo Sotil took, was unimaginable. Despite his current situation in Barcelona, he didn’t care about his career, future or any sort of punishment. He left everything to play for his country, for the love of Blanquirroja and became the hero. Stories like this will never go into oblivion, neither will the journey amazing and ultimately glorious journey of the Peruvian team be ever forgotten by lovers of the beautiful game.
 La Blanquirroja: The White and Red – color of Peru’s national shirt.