A little under two years ago Peru was preparing to host the FIFA U-17 World Cup. As you might expect, the whole country lent its vociferous support to a team that ultimately failed to progress beyond the group phase of the competition but which nevertheless paved the way for a brighter future.
Today, some 20 months on, the time has come for Peruvian football to reap the rewards. Having had their appetite whetted in 2005, the country's fans are in expectant mood as their U-17 heroes limber up for Korea 2007 and a second consecutive appearance at the category's showpiece event.
The undisputed leader of the Peruvian pack is Reimond Manco, a talented striker with an electrifying change of pace. Named the player of the tournament at the South American qualifying competition in Ecuador, Manco chipped in with three goals to help his team finish fourth and clinch a place in Korea Republic. It was the first time one of the country's teams has qualified by right for an official FIFA competition in nearly 30 years.
"I will never forget the reception we got when we came back from Ecuador," commented a wide-eyed Reimond in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com. "Getting that kind of recognition was the best possible reward for a team that played its heart out for Peru. If you ask me what our strong points are, I'd have to say commitment, responsibility, a carefree attitude, and a little bit of humility too. We're a very close-knit team and we're not just team-mates. We're friends more than anything, and I think that's why we did so well."
The teenager's maturity belies his years, a trait that is perhaps the result of a far from conventional route to international prominence.
Yesterday, today and tomorrow
Back in 2005, while the whole of Peru was waiting for the FIFA U-17 World Cup to get under way, Manco was sporting the burgundy colours of Venezuela. The player himself takes up the story: "A lot people think I was born in Isla Margarita, but in fact I was born in Lima, on 23 August 1990. I lived in Venezuela from the age of two to eight and later from the age of thirteen to fifteen. I learned to play football there and went on to play for the national team (at U-15 level), an experience I have very fond memories of. But I'm Peruvian, as are all my family, and it was always my dream to play for Peru."
Once back in his homeland, Manco was signed up by one of Peru's most popular clubs, Alianza Lima, where he alternates between the club's U-17 and U-20 sides. This year, following his exploits in Ecuador, he was thrilled to be handed his top-flight debut. "It was 7 April against Alianza Atletico and we won 2-0," Manco recalls. "Obviously, I was a bit nervous, above all when I heard the fans chanting my name. It was very special."
Since then things have only intensified. In the wake of Peru's shock victory over Brazil at the Sudamericano, the Brazilian press hailed the 1.70m, 62kg youngster as a "young Peruvian Romario", while others have compared him to Barcelona star Lionel Messi. If that were not flattering enough, reports in the national and international press have such prestigious clubs as River Plate, Boca Juniors, PSV Eindhoven and Real Madrid closely monitoring his progress.
In spite of all that, the youngster is keeping his wits about him: "I'm aware of what people are saying, but I'm not getting carried away. I'm only just starting out and I'm in no hurry. Nor am I anxious for a quick transfer to one of Europe's big clubs. A move to a medium-sized club would probably be better for me, but, as I've said before, I'd like to deliver for Alianza first, then for the national team and just let things happen in due course."
As the only boy among four siblings, the player's passion for football has led to one or two arguments at home. "My sisters aren't big into football, but they still give me unconditional support and help take my mind off the game when I get home," he says. Disputes have been known to arise, however, when Manco's love of the game impinges on the rest of the family's viewing time: "I watch every match I can, although I particularly like the Argentinian and Spanish leagues," admits this huge admirer of Jefferson Farfan, Carlos Tevez, Rodrigo Palacio and Juan Roman Riquelme.
Licence to dream
With the U-17 finals just three months away, Manco turns his attention to his side's group in the Far East. "Korea, as host nation, will have to deal with the extra pressure that this entails, and we'll have to wait and see how they respond. Your opening game is always the important one, even more so when you're up against the hosts. That said, you can also make your mark, like we did against Brazil in Ecuador. That proved to us that we could achieve our goal, and we did."
"Togo are a very athletic side with players who are both powerful and technically gifted," the striker adds. "Costa Rica, in contrast, stand out for their organisation. It's not an easy group to progress from, but it is doable." Nor is Manco shy when asked to name his favourites for the title: "Brazil and Argentina are always candidates; Spain have some very good young players, and at least one team from Africa always makes an impact. We'll just have to see who comes into the tournament in the best form."
After sharing observations worthy of the coach he says he would one day like to be, one final question remains: What is Peru's objective at Korea 2007? "It's to get past the group stage. Nobody will reproach us if we don't do it, but my team-mates and I will be disappointed. If we make it to the last 16 though, then anything is possible. We have a solid team and, like everyone else, it's our dream to become world champions."