A veteran of three FIFA World Cup™ campaigns spanning a period of 12 years, Teofilo Cubillas is widely heralded as the greatest forward Peru has ever produced. Supremely gifted, he had a career steeped in highlights, but arguably his finest moment on the world stage was his famous duel with Pele at Mexico 1970, one of the indelible contests of a magnificent tournament.
The early days of Cubillas's career resemble many a story told in world football down the years. From the streets of Puente Piedra in the suburbs of Lima, the youngster rose to become a national hero for his efforts both for his country and popular Peruvian outfit Alianza Lima. He took his first steps with the Alianza youth teams at the age of 14, and his eye for goal and exceptional technique soon grabbed the attention of coaching staff from the senior side. So far so familiar perhaps, yet few would have dared imagine then that he would go on to score an incredible 259 goals for the club so close to his heart.
Elegant and decisive though he undoubtedly was on the pitch, Cubillas first stood out because of his cherubic features. When he made his senior debut at the age of 16, his strike partner Perico Leon christened him el Nene (the Baby). It took the youngster a matter of months before he had won over the Alianza faithful with his instinctive finishing. By the end of the season, and still shy of his 17th birthday, he finished as the league's top scorer and was already on his way to becoming a club legend.
Cubillas's talent quickly caught the eye of Peru's coach at the time, Didi, a former team-mate of Pele in Brazil's FIFA World Cup™-winning side of 1958. Didi awarded him his first international cap in a qualifier for the 1970 finals on 17 July 1968 and for the next decade he would be a permanent fixture in the famous white shirt with the diagonal red stripe across it.
As the qualifying campaign wore on, football fans across South America witnessed the sight of a young footballer blossoming into a star, not least during a spectacular 2-2 draw with Argentina at the Bombonera Stadium in Buenos Aires, where a certain Diego Maradona would burst onto the scene some years later. Cubillas was the natural leader of Peru's golden generation alongside Hector Chumpitaz, Alberto Gallardo and his fellow striker Hugo Sotil, players who were about to etch their names into the psyche of worldwide audiences during the final tournament in Mexico.
Sparkling on word stage
Peru performed remarkably in Mexico, progressing as far as the quarter-finals. Cubillas, in particular, was in sparkling form, netting five goals in four matches – two against Morocco and another against each of Bulgaria, West Germany and Brazil. The revelation of the tournament and a symbol of his team's free-flowing attacking football, Cubillas's creativity, spontaneity and innate gift for improvisation left European scouts drooling in the stands. When he and his colleagues were eventually eliminated after losing 4-2 to Brazil, they left Mexico with their heads held high, stopped by perhaps the greatest side ever assembled.
That FIFA World Cup produced some classic encounters, not least the seven-goal semi-final between Italy and Germany. Peru's quarter-final against Brazil was another feast of football; at times it seemed that all 22 protagonists were bent upon giving free range to their attacking instincts. With Pele and Tostao weaving their magic at one end and Cubillas and Sotil matching them at the other, the spectators in Guadalajara were treated to a feast of one-twos, intricate movement and visionary passing. At the end of it, Cubillas, scorer of his side's second goal, walked off the pitch cheered by the victorious Brazilians, his reputation greatly enhanced.
Voted best South American player in 1972 ahead of Pele, Jairzinho and Perfumo, Cubillas was nonetheless powerless to prevent Peru from missing out on the 1974 FIFA World Cup, as they went down to Chile in a play-off tie in Montevideo. That was the cue for him to try his luck in Europe, where he spent six months with Swiss club Basel and two seasons with Porto before heading home to a hero's welcome. There, he helped Peru win the 1975 second Copa America and was instrumental in Alianza picking up domestic titles in 1977 and 1978.
Cubillas marked his return to the global stage with another five goals at Argentina 1978, when the Peruvians made it to the second phase before failing to emerge from a tough group alongside the hosts, Brazil and Poland. By the time Spain 1982 came around, however, Peru's golden generation were reaching the end of their careers and Cubillas called time on his international career straight after their first-round exit.
His retirement from the professional game came at the age of 37 following a spell in the United States, where he played for Fort Lauderdale Strikers and the Miami-based South Florida Sun. Initially, he moved to the east coast and set up a number of soccer schools, but he slipped his boots on again in 1987 and returned to Peru where he carried on playing until he was 40 to help out his beloved Alianza, after their entire first-team squad perished in an air crash.