Peru hasn’t won a major tournament in nearly thirty years. We last qualified for a World Cup in 1982, and didn’t make it out of the group stage. Since then, with the exception of a few instances of magic, watching the national side has been a kind of ritualized despair. We—players and fans—start each game hoping not to lose. During this last qualifying campaign, our players drew with Brazil at home and celebrated with so much booze and so many prostitutes, you’d think they’d actually won something (or that they were French). Over the years, coach after overpaid coach has been chased away after mounting, occasionally embarrassing losses, and fans, of course, have become inured to so much disappointment, and have adjusted their expectations accordingly. I remember watching a game with my cousins when I was twelve or thirteen when I noticed this tic: A Peruvian striker faces the empty net, and we begin insulting him before he kicks the ball lazily over the crossbar. Which he does. Every time.
Naturally, Peru was last place in the South American qualifying for this tournament.
So, given this sad reality, I’m pleased to present reasons why Peruvians (as well as Bolivians, Ecuadorians, Venezuelans, and Colombians, for that matter) can feel good about our role in the 2010 World Cup. As of now, the Americas in general, and South America in particular, have done exceedingly well. Much attention has been focused on disappointing African sides, and I, like most prognosticators, certainly expected much more from Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast. Europeans have been far bigger disappointments: 2006 champions and runners-up, Italy and France, are going home already. England is moving on almost in spite of themselves, and so far, only the Netherlands seems to be playing with any confidence. And yet, while the rest of the world flops, going into the last date of match play, all the South American sides can advance.
Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay have all won their groups. Brazil and Chile are poised to do the same (though both have difficult matches tomorrow). The most exciting player in the tournament after three games is Argentine Lionel Messi, and the top goal scorer is his teammate, Gonzalo Higuaín. Chile, with its dynamic attacking style, has been one of the more exhilarating sides to watch; and after three matches, it’s clear Paraguay won’t be an easy out for anyone. Now, if you’re a fan of Peru (or the other hapless South American teams mentioned above) squint your eyes and engage in a little speculative reasoning. We’re tenth in South America, last place—yes, I know that sounds bad—but think of it this way: We’re last place in the world’s most competitive region!
So here’s what I’m hoping happens. I’ll be cheering for Argentina on Saturday, even though I live in California, which makes me part Mexican. I’m hoping Argentina takes the crown, and FIFA revises its rules so that defending champion gets an automatic berth. In fact, I’m hoping South American sides do so well that FIFA gives us one more berth. Then, with Brazil already in for 2014 (as host), Peru will have its chance. And glory could be ours. We could be the Slovakia of 2014.
It could happen.