When Copa America 2015 was about to get underway, you would find very few people that would have backed Peru to win the tournament at a whopping 100/1. Only two nations were given less of a chance of winning the tournament – Bolivia (200/1) and Jamaica (500/1).
If you fancied a punt on the competition’s top scorer, you could’ve gotten 125/1 on Peru’s hat-trick hero Paolo Guerrero topping the charts; before Peru’s match against Chile the best odds you’d have found was 3/1. In a group with Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, Peru weren’t given a chance. No-hopers. Whipping boys.
So it came as a surprise when La Blanquirroja put up such a fight against Dunga’s Brazil in their opening group game. Indeed, they were extremely unfortunate to be on the losing side that night. Were it not for one man – Neymar – they probably would’ve won that game. Fortunately for Ricardo Gareca’s side their next opponents didn’t possess anyone of Neymar’s talent.
They battled their way past a ten-man Venezuela after Fernando Amorebieta was sent off inside the opening 30 minutes. After breaking down a resolute La Vinotinto defence thanks to former Bayern forward Claudio Pizarro, the Peruvians moved on to World Cup shock performers Colombia. Despite being unable to find the net against José Pékerman’s side they qualified in second place, with the game ending 0-0 in Temuco.
Next in their way was Mauricio Soria’s Bolivia, who went into the game on the back of a similar shock group stage performance ending in 2nd place finish. Peru showed their true offensive threat for the first time in the quarter-final, coasting past El Verde by three goals to one, primarily thanks to a hat-trick from Paolo Guerrero.
All that stood between Peru and their first Copa America final since 1975 was the small matter of a tie against hosts Chile. Everything was against Peru, having seen star defender Carlos Zambrano harshly dismissed inside 20 minutes and gone a goal down to what appeared to be a clear offside.
They fought back to level the game with 10-men, but were condemned to a third-place player-off thanks to a stunning strike from Eduardo Vargas. In spite of the defeat, the performance summed up Peru. In the face of adversity they battled for each other, they battled for their fans and they battled for their nation.
After the defeat to Chile it was clear that this was a man and a team that had earned the respect of many.
Their extraordinary performance at this year’s Copa America is one of the reasons that this tournament is so endearing to viewers not only in South America, but all across the world. Although there have been similar surprise packages in recent years. In 2011 Paraguay finished runners up, while Peru came third. In 2007 Mexico came third and in 2001 Honduras also achieved that feat. South America’s most prestigious national competition is a tournament for people that love an underdog.
What can Peru’s excellent Copa America performance be attributed to? One thing – Ricardo Gareca.
The 57-year-old only took charge of Peru in 2015, having a miniscule amount of time to prepare his side for the tournament. Despite this, he appears to have implemented his style on the side within his relatively short tenure thus far, turning them from a counter-attacking orientated team to a robust defensive unit that can play an expansive yet direct style of football.
Putting a great trust in players that currently play in the Torneo Descentralizado – Peru’s top flight – Gareca is in charge of one of just three teams in Copa America to have the majority of their players playing club football in their home nation.
These are not bit part players either, arguably one of the goalkeepers of the tournament in Pedro Gallese is on the books of Juan Aurich, creative hub Christian Cueva currently stars for Alianza Lima and the patrolling midfield duo of Josepmir Ballón and Carlos Lobatón dominate the pitch together for reigning champions Sporting Cristal.
Gareca’s reliance on home-grown players hasn’t came about by luck. In 2007 he joined the nation’s most successful league side, Club Universitario de Deportes, leading them to Apertura success in his first and only season. His stay was short as he received an offer from Velez Sarsfield in Argentina, where he starred in over 100 games as a player, upon his return he led Velez to two Clausura’s.
The Argentine, who is one of 99 players to have played for both River Plate and Boca Juniors, operates alongside Peru legend and former Newcastle midfielder Nobby Solano. The combination, in management terms, has proven to be as effective as a deadly striker partnership would be to any title-challenging side, with Solano also bearing unrivaled knowledge of the Peruvian divisions, having played and managed in his homeland.
Surprisingly, the best is yet to come – or so Gareca would have us believe.
I feel that we have the potential and the guys know, from there we can get better. We are convinced that we will grow. We are in a period of growth.
Solano has also recognised Peru’s potential and their improvement under Gareca, as he told to El Mercurio.
Ricardo Gareca has rescued the talent in this group, he believes in their potential. We are not in a position to feel more or less than anyone – we just simply have to work.
This is a Peruvian side guided by a manager with a plan and a philosophy. Not a philosophy that involves merely implementing a play style, a throwaway term used to describe what Roberto Martinez is doing at Everton, or what Jose Mourinho is doing at Chelsea.
It is a philosophy that embodies Peruvian football. Hope to those not playing for Bayern Munich, Fiorentina or Sporting Lisbon. Belief that, as a team, they can overcome nations that possess a vastly superior talent pool.
Faith in the players they have produced. It may not have yielded silverware for Peru – yet, but those that love football in all of its forms will be hoping Gareca’s philosophy is one that remains long after he ventures on to pastures new.