Copa America 2019: The Argentine mastermind behind Peru’s resurgence
For the better part of the last three-and-a-half decades, former Argentine forward Ricardo Gareca, nicknamed ‘El Tigre’ (the tiger), was better known in Peru as the guy whose late equaliser in a World Cup qualifier denied the country direct qualification for the 1986 edition. Gareca’s goal at the iconic Estadio Monumental in June, 1985, not only earned Argentina a place in the main tournament in Mexico but also put Peru in the difficult play-off route, from where they failed to make the World Cup cut.
While it was not the cause of it, Gareca’s goal also began a period of international wilderness for Peru, who subsequently stopped being a part of the World Cup conversation and struggled for relevance even in South America.
A year after that Argentina-Peru game, Diego Maradona took the world by storm and led Argentina to a second World Cup triumph. Gareca, whose heroics saw Argentina play the World Cup in the first place, was left out of the 22-man squad for the tournament by coach Carlos Bilardo.
As fate would have it, Gareca would end his career without ever playing at a World Cup.
Then, thirty years after he broke Peruvian hearts, Gareca was appointed as the country’s head coach in 2015. At the time, Gareca had already accumulated two decades of experience coaching clubs across South America—in Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Brazil. For a team that looked some distance behind the top South American teams, Peru saw an immediate reversal in fortunes under Gareca.
In 2015, Peru finished third at Copa America, and in its next edition a year later, finished top of their group, which also featured Brazil. Despite losing to Colombia on penalties in the quarters, Peru continued their upward surge. In 2017, Gareca’s side went unbeaten and finally fulfilled a long Peruvian dream as they qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1982.
“I was constantly reminded of that goal as soon as I arrived in Peru, but I never saw it as something I had to make up for. I just did what I had to do as an Argentina player; it was nothing personal,” Gareca told fifa.com shortly before last year’s World Cup. In Russia last year, two narrow 1-0 defeats to Denmark and France put paid to Peru’s knockout hopes before they ended their campaign with a 2-0 win over Australia.
Yet, the signs of Peru’s progress under Gareca were always visible and the two-time South American champions’ resurgence in international football has been rubber-stamped by their run into the ongoing Copa America final.
It didn’t come about easy; a 5-0 defeat to hosts Brazil—Peru’s opponents in Sunday’s final—in the group stages had ruthlessly exposed Gareca’s side’s frailties, a lack of defensive organisation. That result from earlier in the tournament explains why, despite their phenomenal campaign, Peru remain rank underdogs ahead of the title clash.
Ability to adapt
But this summer, Gareca and Peru have also shown a kind of tactical maturity that has helped them transform from a promising side to genuine title challengers. Unlike the gung-ho attacking approach at last year’s World Cup, Peru tweaked to a more reactive approach in the quarter-finals against Uruguay, scraping through on penalties.
Against two-time defending champions Chile in the semis, Peru preyed on the defensive vulnerabilities of their opponents, allowing their historically bitter rivals more time on the ball and pouncing on mistakes at the other end. It was a fitting response to his critics from Gareca, whose approach has often been termed as rigid.
Peru’s transformation has also been down to Gareca’s ability to reduce the team’s reliance on individuals.
For over a decade-and-a-half, former Bayern Munich forward Claudio Pizzaro was the biggest star in the team. When Pizzaro abruptly quit international duty in 2016, current captain Paolo Guerrero took over that mantle. But after Guerrero found himself suspended over a drug offence in late 2017, Peru coped just fine.
Guerrero returned to action at the World Cup but Gareca’s team has hardly relied on his individual brilliance. Far from it, while veterans Guerrero and Jefferson Farfan continue to be influential members of the team, the core of the side includes the likes of midfielders Christian Cueva, Edison Flores and Renato Tapia, defender Luis Abram and Carlos Zambrano and goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, among others.
Interestingly, only four of the Peru players in the current squad ply their trade in Europe (in contract, 20 of Brazil’s 23-member Copa squad play in Europe). Three times that number play in South American leagues, including six in Peru’s busy but low-key league. There are also three players each from Mexico’s Liga MX and USA’s Major League Soccer while one plays in Saudi Arabia.
So how exactly has Gareca transformed the Peru team? “What Gareca has done is change the mentality of the national team players,” says Peruvian football analyst and scout Victor Zaferson. “In public, Gareca makes it a point to say he believes in his players.
The players too enjoy training with him. In terms of skills or abilities, the Peruvian players are very good but what has changed this time is the support from the coach. Gareca is like a father figure to them. The reason he understands these players so well is because he has been studying them, their lives, since he coached Peru´s Universitario in 2008.”
On Sunday, Gareca could deliver Peru their first title since 1975, and, arguably, their greatest ever triumph. Regardless of the result in the final, ‘El Tigre’ has already completed his journey from a villain to a demi-god in Peru.