Few players have contributed as much to their country’s footballing history as Teofilo Cubillas has for Peru. Nicknamed El Nene (The Kid), he was the leader of the golden generation that won the Copa America 1975 and performed with distinction at Mexico 1970 and Argentina 1978. To round off a distinguished career, the legendary attacking midfielder also inspired his nation to qualification for Spain 1982, their last appearance at the FIFA World Cup™.
Cubillas's individual achievements are equally impressive. Peru’s all-time top scorer with 26 goals in 81 appearances, he struck ten times in 13 FIFA World Cup matches, a haul that helped him collect the adidas Bronze Shoe in 1970 and the adidas Silver Shoe eight years later. One of the most prolific midfielders in history, his club record of 268 goals in 469 top-flight games across the world outshines those of luminaries such as Diego Maradona, Michel Platini and Ruud Gullit.
While in Peru he only ever played for Alianza Lima, he enjoyed spells with Basel in Switzerland, Portuguese giants Porto and Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Now 60, Cubillas spoke to FIFA.com about his glorious past, his current projects and what the future may hold.
FIFA.com: Teofilo, what are you up to at the moment?
Teofilo Cubillas: I’m still involved in football. I do a lot of travelling as a FIFA instructor for the Technical Study Group and with the Special Olympics, which has changed my life. It’s very special to be with people like that. I live in the US but I always go back to Peru to keep my emotional links intact and stay in touch with people. And whatever free time I have I devote to my grandchildren. I give to them what I couldn’t give to my children when I was playing.
He has made up for what he lacks in terms of physique with his innate skill and tremendous power. And he has this amazing ability to shake off his markers. He’s incredible.
You are one of The FIFA 100 (the greatest living footballers, as selected by Pele), and you have just been inducted into the CONMEBOL Hall of Fame. What does that kind of recognition mean to you?
I never expected to achieve so much recognition when I retired from the game. I’m almost embarrassed to think that I’m the only Peruvian in the FIFA 100, but I love the fact that what I achieved as a footballer did not go unnoticed.
You were part of a uniquely talented generation of Peruvian players. Do you think the current crop lack technique?
No, and I don’t think we should be going on about the great footballers that Peru once had, because we’ve got them now. Players like Claudio Pizzaro, Jefferson Farfan and Juan Manuel Vargas are all having success in Europe. The problems that the national side had in the World Cup qualifiers had nothing to do with that.
So what was the reason then?
In purely footballing terms, and this is something that also happened to Argentina, the players weren’t quite able to repeat their club form for the national side. If they had scored half the goals they get with their clubs, then we would have gone through. There were also a few administrative things that had an effect.
How do you feel about Peru failing to reach the World Cup again?
Angry and sad. It’s been 28 years now and that’s too long. If we didn’t have the players, then I’d just accept it, but we have more than enough resources. And it’s not a question of wiping the slate clean and starting anew, as they say. I can’t be doing with that. Look at Chile. They were worse off than Peru a few years ago but all it took for them was to appoint a coach and a president with the ability to turn things around. You don’t need three years to lay the groundwork and start getting results. They’ve even got several home-based players in their squad. Football is all about attitude, and if you set out exactly what you want to achieve, then you can achieve it.
Would like to become national coach one day?
In 1987 I agreed to become player-coach at Alianza Lima for four months but that was enough for me. I didn’t really like the job and though I’d love to give something back to Peruvian football for everything it has given me, I’d like to do it in a different way, maybe as president. We have the players and yet we still can’t reach the World Cup. I can’t get my head round that and I can’t accept it. So let’s see what the future brings.
Do you ever watch the FIFA World Cup matches you played in?
I’ve got all the videos but I don’t have the time to watch them. I saw the goals against Scotland in 1978 on TV a few years ago and I was lost for words when I heard the commentary. Maybe that’s why I don’t watch them. I get very emotional.
What is your happiest memory?
The opening goal against Bulgaria at Mexico 1970, a game we won 3-2. There’d been an earthquake in Peru just a few days before and news didn’t spread as quickly then as it does now. We found out just before we went out to play that 50,000 people had died. Knowing that we’d brought a little bit of happiness to the country at such a sad time was a feeling that is impossible to put into words.
Let’s come back to the present. Who is the best footballer around at the moment?
Lionel Messi. He has made up for what he lacks in terms of physique with his innate skill and tremendous power. And he has this amazing ability to shake off his markers. He’s incredible.
It was an honour that Pele named me as his successor. I played with some talented people and no-one can take that away from me.
Are there any players who remind you of you?
I wouldn’t want to be like any of the players around today. I was what I am. I achieved what I could and I don’t like making comparisons. It was an honour that Pele named me as his successor, and if I could, I’d go back and be a footballer from that time again. I played with some talented people and no-one can take that away from me.
If you could, which team would you play for today?
In Peru it'd be Alianza Lima. And if I had to choose a foreign team, it would be the current Barcelona side. I’d fit in because I liked to play and bring others into the game too. I loved playing good football and doing little one-twos with Messi, Xavi, Ibrahimovic and Henry would be something else.
One last question: Is there anything you would change about your career?
Nothing. As I said on the day I retired, if I was born again, I’d choose football as my job, Alianza Lima as my team and Peru as my country.