Peru pushing on and dreaming big
They say that hope springs eternal and nowhere is this truer than in football, where the positive energy generated by even the slightest sign of progress can prove pivotal. If harnessed, it can lead to a wave of momentum which, in turn, makes even the biggest goals seem achievable. Such is the mood around the Peruvian national team at present.
After picking up just four points out of the first 18 available in South American qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, Peru's dreams of reaching the tournament looked to be in tatters. However, their results in the last three months of 2016 have rekindled belief.
Granted, despite amassing ten points in six games during that period, Los Incas still have something of a mountain to climb. They currently lie eighth in the table on 14 points, five points and three places shy of Argentina, who occupy the play-off spot. Nevertheless, crucially, their fate is in their own hands and they appear determined to embrace the challenge.
Peru's resurgence has been reflected by their rise up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking: placed 26th in September, they jumped to 23rd in October, 19th in November, December and January, and 18th in February, their highest-ever position.
Naturally, the team's revival and this historic milestone have fuelled optimism among the Peruvian sports press and fans alike, who are once again dreaming of seeing their country return to the World Cup for the first time since Spain 1982.
The players are equally upbeat. "The national team are kicking on," attacking midfielder Christian Cueva recently told Brazilian media, where he has been in fine form for giants Sao Paulo. "We wasted a lot of time because of not realising our potential, but now we're doing all the right things," the playmaker added.
Whether they are able to cap this upturn by making it to Russia 2018 is another question entirely. When asked, the skilful 25-year-old sounded a bullish note: "We're all conscious of the talent in the team and what we're capable of. We've got what it takes to earn a place at the World Cup."
The bloom of youthCueva is one of several younger players whom coach Ricardo Gareca has nurtured since taking the reins in March 2015, including by giving them the opportunity to earn their spurs at the Copa America Chile 2015, where Peru took bronze. It was a similar story at last year's centenary edition of the competition in the USA, where La Blanquirroja finished fifth.
Indeed, only two players aged over 30 started in the country's most recent Russia 2018 qualifier, a 2-0 loss to Brazil in November: defender Alberto Rodriguez (32) and their captain and undisputed talisman, attacker Paolo Guerrero (33).
Meanwhile, the budding left-back Nilson Loyola (22) and midfield anchorman Pedro Aquino (21) were both given the nod against the Brazilians that day. Furthermore, the defensive midfielder Renato Tapia (21), the more attack-minded Andy Polo (21) and Edison Flores (22), and the full-back Miguel Trauco (24) are all expected to play significant roles in what remains of the qualifying campaign.
This injection of young blood has also had a knock-on effect on some of the more senior figures. Mindful of the increased competition for places, the likes of goalkeeper Pedro Gallese (26), the defenders Aldo Corzo (27), Christian Ramos (28) and Yoshimar Yotun (26), and the winger Andre Carrillo (25) have all been galvanised, responding by upping their game.
None other than Guerrero heaped praise on Gareca after that defeat by Brazil: "If I were a higher-up at the Peruvian FA, I'd renew his contract. They've got to bear in mind the changes he's made to the team, the aggression we're showing, how confident every player is, the spirit in the group and how many members of the squad have developed. All of that needs to be considered and the upshot has been largely positive."
Next up for Peru on the road to Russia is a trip to lowly Venezuela, who are all but out of contention, before playing host to Uruguay. "It's vital we get six points," Gareca has said on more than one occasion. The Argentinian tactician is adamant that qualification is a very real possibility: "I won't ever give up while we're in with a chance mathematically. I have faith that this could be a big year for us."