Think of Peruvian football and the name Teofilo Cubillas invariably springs to mind. El Nene as he is known, was the undisputed leader of the national side, scoring ten goals in three FIFA World Cup finals: Mexico 1970, Argentina 1978 and Spain 1982. 23 years after his swansong in Spain, Cubillas was back in Peru to attend the draw for the FIFA U-17 World Championship.
"I was hoping to take part in the event," said the legendary footballer in Chiclayo, the venue for the draw. And with good reason - the world's showpiece youth tournament is being held in his home country, where he is still revered by young and old alike. Regarded by FIFA as one of the 100 greatest living football players, Cubillas says he will go back to Peru "whenever I'm needed." In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, El Nene gave us his thoughts on the tournament, the impact it will have on football in his country and its legacy for Peruvian youngsters: "I wish I could have played in a competition like this when I was young," he says.
Teofilo, this is undoubtedly a very special time for you with a major tournament being staged in your country. It must mean a lot you.
It does. I'm going to say what I said the day I retired from the game: if I come back in another life, I would still choose Peru as my country, Alianza as my team and football as my career. That says it all, doesn't it? It's an honour to be involved in an event like this. It always gives me immense pleasure to help my country whenever I can.
Let's move on to the FIFA U-17 World Championship. What do you think its legacy will be for Peru?
We have a structure in place after last year's Copa America, and FIFA's decision to hold the games on artificial pitches will make a great contribution. Let's be honest, the country's grass pitches often left a lot to be desired. These new pitches show there's a long-term commitment. They'll last 10 or 15 years and they can be used all day long.
And in footballing terms?
I hope these boys can take it all in because it's been 23 years since Peru took part in a World Cup. I hope it helps them get used to top-level competition, to commit themselves and try to improve so they can go on and play in U-20 tournaments and, of course, major competitions.
Do you think that if Peru had taken part in more FIFA U-17 World Championships the full team would be in a different position today?
It would be in a very different position. Peru's record in South American youth tournaments is pretty awful. In this tournament, however, the boys can change all that. I've had the chance here to speak to Christian Ramos Garagay, the team captain, and I told him about my experiences. In football it's eleven against eleven, and if you give it your all in these types of competitions, you can beat anyone and achieve anything.
What chance does Peru have here?
I didn't like what I saw in the South American tournament, but my opinion has changed completely after listening to Ramos and seeing his attitude. I'm planning to speak to the boys in the next few days. I expect the best from them, although it all depends on how they handle the tournament. When you prepare for a World Cup, you have to think you're going to win. You can't worry about your rivals. You've got to go out and believe you can beat them all. I've got experience of playing in big tournaments and I want to convey that to them, tell them to play as a team, not to lose concentration. They mustn't ever feel inferior, and they have to believe they can win. They'll have the fans behind them too, like a twelfth player on the pitch. They've got to make the most of that.
Do you wish you could have played in a FIFA U-17 World Championship?
Of course I do! When I was 16 I won the Peruvian league with Alianza. I scored against everyone, both home and away, and I was top scorer for two years running. If I'd been able to show that in a tournament like this … (pauses). I really was in great form at the time. Unfortunately, when I was playing there was no such thing as U-17 or U-20 competitions.
What could they have contributed to your career?
All you have to do is look at how many stars first appeared in this tournament and what they went on to achieve in their careers. I was a 21-year-old novice when I played in my first FIFA World Cup finals. But you just have to get on with it. My football career gives me great satisfaction, and the important thing is that the boys get acquainted with winning and success at an early age. And if they're doing it for Peru, then all the better!
Do the people of Peru know what to expect on 16 September?
Unfortunately, no. We've had a lean run in the last few years and people only get to see World Cups at home on TV. To have the tournament in our backyard is a fantastic opportunity for Peru. The Copa America went off really well - it generated a lot of excitement and people really got involved. Their enthusiasm was contagious and people are football mad here. I hope the kids enjoy the tournament and can say when they're older, "I was there and I saw China or the USA play." That's what it's all about.
One last question: who do you think will win the title?
To be perfectly honest I don't know. In football you can't predict who's going to win. I don't want to tip anyone because there have been a lot of surprises recently. I hope Peru go all the way although not many people think they will. I think it's just a way of making them believe in themselves.