Round eight of the South American qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ made it very clear to the region's sides that nothing would be decided until the final few matchdays of the competition. Argentina and Brazil, who not long ago looked certainties for early qualification, have both been struggling in recent months and jointly lie just three points off sixth place - a finish that would exclude them from even the playoffs. Colombia, meanwhile, came into this month's double-header unbeaten and with their confidence sky-high, only to lose both their games as well as their coach. One side that did make the most of September, though, were Peru, who got some badly needed points on the board and breathed new life into their stagnant campaign.
Jose Del Solar's side came into this month's qualifiers against Venezuela and Argentina with several of their key players suspended by the Peruvian FA, and confidence low after a string of poor results and fierce criticism from the sporting press. Understandably, very few expected a positive outcome. Raising the stakes further was team captain Nolberto Solano, who said publicly: "If we don't get [at least] four points from these two games, I'm retiring from international football." It was an assessment shared by the coach, who said that failure to achieve that tally would see Peru "watching another World Cup on television".
Change of mood
The first of Peru's two home games ended with a laboured 1-0 win over Venezuela, a solitary strike from Piero Alva enough to move Del Solar's side off the foot of the table. The second, a surprise 1-1 draw with Argentina secured by a last-gasp Johan Fano strike, took the Incaicos to within five points of the playoff berth.
"We showed that, when we really want to, we can hold our own against teams even as star-studded as Argentina. We know that there is still a long way to go and that we need to improve, but we proved that we can achieve things," said the coach after September's games. It was, without doubt, a special moment for the under-fire tactician, who after earlier facing calls for his dismissal is now about to renew his contract until the end of the qualifiers.
Jose Mallqui, a member of the Peruvian FA's South Africa 2010 Committee, echoed the mood in the media by voicing his support for Del Solar after the recent games: "Despite all the criticism levelled at the coach, I still believed he should continue with his project. His contract runs out in October but, as I said before, our position is that we want him to stay until the end of this competition."
New faces, old dreams
Though still ninth in the ten-team group, this month's four-point haul puts Peru back in the hunt for the coveted fifth place, which equates to a play-off berth against a team from the North, Central America and Caribbean Confederation. Points aside, the results against Venezuela and Argentina had other pluses for the Incaicos: the boost to the squad's self-belief; the strengthening of Del Solar's position; and the emergence of promising youngsters like Carlos Zambrano of Germany's Schalke 04, and Daniel Chavez of Belgian side Bruges, both of whom are just 19.
"Those youngsters showed they weren't overawed by the situation or burdened by the jersey, and that's the way forward. They will continue to get their chances because they showed real hunger," explained the coach. Moreover, in spite of the emerging youngsters and improved results, Del Solar is considering recalling Jefferson Farfan and Santiago Acasiete, who are eligible to play again after having had their suspension for indiscipline reduced by the Peruvian FA.
Next up for Peru are October's away fixtures against last-placed Bolivia and leaders Paraguay. "We've won nothing yet, but this is undoubtedly the right way to be going into those games. If we can perform consistently, then we'll be in with a shout," insists Solano. The long-suffering fans, who have not seen their team grace a FIFA World Cup finals since 1982, will be dearly hoping that is the case.