Ghosts of heartbreaks past loom as Argentina and Peru meet in crucial World Cup 2018 qualifier
Could plucky Peru really prevent Argentina from reaching the World Cup finals? Yes, writes, Jack Lang, and it wouldn't be for the first time.
31 August 1969. La Bombonera, that most vertiginous of bear pits, thrummed to the beat of hearts in mouths. Nothing but a win would do for Argentina if they were to claw their way to the following summer's World Cup. The qualifying campaign had been a disaster, not so much a car crash as a never-ending series of them, but there was still a chance.
Their opponents that day, Peru, had not played at a World Cup in 39 years. Even back then it had been as invitees: this was no well-oiled winning machine. Yet with Brazilian coach Didi in the dugout and Teófilo Cubillas strutting his stuff in the pitch, La Blanquirroja finally appeared to be going somewhere.
Mexico, it turned out: Oswaldo 'Cachito' Ramírez's brace secured a 2-2 draw, launching what would come to be seen as a golden generation for Peruvian football. For the first – and still only – time, Argentina would be watching a World Cup on television. They would not return to La Bombonera for a qualifier for 28 years.
30 June 1985. The final round of qualifying for Mexico '86. (It was always Mexico in those days.) Argentina vs Peru, again, although this time the balance of power was tilted slightly more in the hosts' favour: a draw would be enough to seal top spot in the group. Still, the nerves were jangling as ticker tape and mud got acquainted on the pitch at El Monumental.
Eleven minutes in, Diego Maradona danced down the left flank and crossed for Pedro Pasculli, who swivelled and buried his shot in the bottom corner. Advantage Argentina. But Peru, their battle DNA hardened by three World Cup appearances in the preceding 15 years, reacted, netting twice to ruin the half-time break for the home fans. As the second period rumbled on, it looked as though the curse was going to strike again.
One man, though, had other ideas. Ricardo Gareca, a gaunt Rick Wakeman look-alike of a forward, stepped off the bench with an hour played and 20 minutes later broke Peruvian hearts, turning home from all of five centimetres after a goalmouth scramble. Another 2-2 draw, but this time Argentina were going to the World Cup, and the rest, as they say...
Supporters of Peru's football team gather at Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires on October 4, 2017 to welcome the teamGetty Images
5 October 2017. Tonight, Argentina and Peru again do battle once more in a game that will go a long way to deciding their fates in the race for the 2018 World Cup. Both teams are locked on 24 points, with an identical goal difference. Peru's superiority in the scoring stakes means that they would probably be the more satisfied with a draw, but even then, they know they have a tough game against Colombia in the final round of games.
It would be a doozy of a match even without the historical resonances, yet the ghosts of the past will be hard to ignore when the players run out this evening. It has been relocated to La Bombonera, for a start – a decision made for reasons oblique by one of the game's more opaque federations. And the coach looking to mastermind another Peruvian success, against the odds? That'll be Gareca, 59 now and still that many kilograms soaking wet, out to make himself a pariah in his homeland.
That World Cup heartbreak is even a possibility for La Albiceleste at this stage is damning. Even a part-time football fan could compile a solid mental list of world-class Argentine players, headed up by Lionel Messi. Yet the last few years have been marked by drudgery on the field and chaos off it: they are on their third coach of the qualifying campaign and their stellar array of attackers have combined for a grand total of 16 goals in 16 matches. Even Venezuela, CONMEBOL's whipping boys, have managed more.
In Jorge Sampaoli, who took over from the doomed Edgardo 'Big Foot' Bauza in June, Argentina do at least have a coach with the ideas and clout required to whip a team into shape. The problem is that time is short and pressure mounting, meaning long-term strategic questions (Can Messi and Paulo Dybala play in the same side? How long will Gonzalo Higuaín remain exiled?) must be addressed at a later date. For now, it's all about the short-term fix, which is the best explanation for why Darío Benedetto, a 27-year-old striker with one cap to his name, looks set to lead the line tonight.
Boca Juniors' forward Dario Benedetto (R)Getty Images
The mood in the Peru camp is far more positive and for good reason: Brazil aside, the minnows are the continent's form team, having claimed 13 points from the last 18 available. Gareca has taken a young, relatively inexperienced squad and imbued it with belief, slowly putting the building blocks for success in place. "He’s more of a friend than a coach," utility man Yoshimar Yotún explained recently. "It didn’t take him long to get us believing again, both as individuals and a group. He’s given us renewed confidence.”
Former Bayern Munich striker Paolo Guerrero remains the side's talisman, but he has had far more support in the final third this campaign, with André Carillo, Christian Cueva and Edison Flores completing a ruthless attacking unit. The latter, a sparky winger who plays for Aalborg in Denmark, has been a revelation, scoring crucial goals against Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador in the last few rounds.
Peruvian preparations for the game have been a touch more fraught than usual. Cueva, Carillo and centre-back Christian Ramos are all suspended, weakening Gareca's hand at the worst moment possible. There have also been bitter whispers about spies at their training sessions this week and the delegation even travelled to Argentina with a sizeable supply of bottled water, to avoid the risk of stomach bugs from hotel taps. Paranoia? Perhaps, but then this is South American football. The stakes are high and the rules don't apply.
A victory tonight, which would all but guarantee progress to Russia, would make it all worthwhile, however. Argentina have other ideas, naturally, but there's one thing everyone can agree on: whatever happens, it will be historic. This fixture just has that knack.