The history of football is full of fairy tales, some of which end almost before they begin. That much seemed to be the case for newly founded Peruvian side Real Garcilaso last December, when their bid to win their maiden league title was thwarted by Sporting Cristal of Lima, who collected their 16th championship at the expense of the new boys from Cusco.
Far from being the end of the Real Garcilaso story, that surprise runners-up slot has merely proved the starting point for another unlikely adventure, this time in the Copa Libertadores. Rather than look upon their first appearance in Latin America’s most important club competition as an opportunity to pick up valuable experience for the future, La Máquina Celeste set about making an instant impact on the big stage.
Their desire to hold on to their best players and prevent them from being snapped up by the giants from Lima provided an indication of their ambition, which was further underlined by coach Fredy Garcia in the wake of their championship play-off defeat to Sporting Cristal.
Revealing his desire for continental success, he said: “We need to get the details right and be in good shape for the Copa Libertadores. There are no restrictions on the number of foreigners you can play with, which gives us more options. It’s not enough for us just to be competing in the tournament. We want to make history in it.”
Proving as good as his word, Garcia spent the next few weeks strengthening his squad with foreign imports, acquiring the services of Argentinian midfielder Alfredo Ramua and the Paraguayan quartet of Oscar Gamarra, Victor Ferreira, Rolando Bogado and Edgar Acosta.
In doing so, he has assembled a side capable of bouncing back from the disappointment of missing out on the league title and punching above their weight in the Libertadores, where they have progressed to the last 16, a stage many teams with much more history behind them have tried and failed to reach.
Given their exploits on the continental stage, a tournament in which teams with no real international pedigree occasionally make an appearance, it is hard to believe that Asociacion Civil Real Atletico Garcilaso, to give the club their full name, only came into existence on 16 July 2009.
It was back then that a group of former students of the Gran Unidad Escolar Inca Garcilaso de La Vega met in a bid to give football in Cusco a boost, this at a time when local sides Cienciano and Deportivo Garcilaso were both experiencing administrative problems.
Led by Julio Vasquez Granilla, who would become the club’s first president, their idea was to found a team that the people of the southeastern city could identify with, though their idea to adopt the name of Garcilaso from Deportivo – a reference to the Peruvian writer and historian who gave his nickname to the school they attended – was not without controversy.
The first side they assembled was made up entirely of local players and had an average age of just 17, though their relative lack of experience did not prevent them from winning the regional second division title, which earned the new institution a place in the 2010 Copa Peru.
It was at this point that the story became almost too good to be true. Exceeding their initial aim of creating a team the people of Cusco could identify with, the new boys went on a winning run that made them impossible to ignore. In 2010, before they had even established their fan base, they reached the national phase of the Copa Peru and swept their board at local level, winning the district, provincial and departmental titles.
Having scored the small matter of 211 goals and conceded only 24, Real Garcilaso made their arrival in the Peruvian elite, finishing league runners-up at the very first attempt and checking into the Copa Libertadores. If the aim was to get a whole city behind them, they could not have done it any faster.
Nevertheless, the ambitious Garcia has his sights set even higher: “A lot has been said about how getting this far is an achievement in itself, but that’s not the case. Now is not the time to think about that. I’ve got a quality squad and I want to take on South America’s big teams with it.”
His wish came true when the Peruvian upstarts were drawn against Nacional of Montevideo in the last 16. Three-time winners of the competition, the Uruguayans are appearing in the Libertadores for the 40th time and have played over 300 games in the tournament.
Garcia’s players did him proud in the first leg against Nacional, earning a 1-0 win they will look to defend in Thursday’s return leg at the legendary Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, a setting they would barely have dreamed of playing at only a few months ago.
“We’ve never looked upon anything as being impossible and we won’t be starting now,” said Garcia, contemplating the possibility of a quarter-final tie against either Independiente Santa Fe of Colombia or Gremio of Brazil. “This is not the time to look on this tie as a dream.”