Argentina-Peru, a long-running tale of heroes & bogeymen

If the story of Argentina’s meetings with Peru in FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers is scripted, then whoever is writing it enjoys playing with people’s emotions, as the fans in both countries can attest. And it is a story that keeps on running; this Thursday, and for the fourth time in their history, the two nations will face off in a virtual World Cup qualification decider.

Played at Boca Juniors’ home ground of La Bombonera in 1969, the very first of these four meetings was the launchpad for the finest generation of players Peru has ever produced, who ensured Argentina’s one and only world finals qualifying failure to date.

The next two, played out at River Plate’s Estadio Monumental, were unique in that they both decided the World Cup qualification hopes of two Argentinians giants of the game: Diego Maradona in the Mexico 1986 campaign, and Lionel Messi – with Maradona in the dugout – on the road to South Africa 2010.

Thursday evening’s showdown at La Bombonera will be Messi’s first ever official match at the stadium. Will it end with him smiling, just as he and Maradona did in 2009 and 1985 respectively, or will Peru deny Argentina just as they did 38 years ago?

Past crucial World Cup qualifiers

  • 31 August 1969: Argentina 2-2 Peru (Peru qualify for Mexico 1970, Argentina eliminated)

  • 30 June 1985: Argentina 2-2 Peru (Argentina qualify for Mexico 1986, Peru go on to the play-offs, where they lose to Chile)

  • 11 October 2009: Argentina 2-1 Peru (Argentina score in the third minute of stoppage time to qualify and avoid the play-offs)

The table as it stands

A case of déjà vu “You can compare it in some way ,” Argentina’s general manager Jorge Burruchaga told “We absolutely have to win to keep things in our hands. It’s an absolute must.”

A World Cup winner in 1986 and a runner-up four years later, Burruchaga was a member of the Argentina side in that 1985 qualifier. “I’d prefer to play World Cup Finals than deciders like the one against Peru,” he said. “It was a very stressful occasion, whereas the Finals I played in Mexico and Italy were very happy occasions because you knew you were close to achieving something great.”

The hero of Peru’s 1969 draw with La Albiceleste with two goals, Oswaldo Ramirez believes fifth-placed Argentina are “scared” of missing out on a place at Russia 2018. While a Peru win on Thursday will not knock their opponents out altogether – as his brace did that day – Ramirez has every confidence in his compatriots.

This Peru side is even better than the 1969 one because it’s a more compact team with lots of talented youngsters,” he said. Thanks to three consecutive wins, Peru lie one place above the Argentinians in fourth – the last direct qualification place – and are looking to secure a return to the world finals for the first time since Spain 1982.

A World Cup runner-up at Italy 1990, former goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea spoke to Argentinian newspaper La Nación about the pressure on Messi and his team-mates: “Their emotions will be very raw right now. To reach three finals would be seen as a great achievement in any other country, even if you lost them, but here we have this whole industry of failure, and it’s holding the players back.”

Despite his own experience and his former team-mate’s words, Burruchaga remains confident: “Enthusiasm and sheer desire are going to play their part, and I think the team’s shaping up just fine. Argentina will end up making it to the World Cup.”

Distant memories revived As if this week’s encounter were not spicy enough, sitting in the Peru dugout will be Argentinian coach Ricardo Gareca. The former forward is none other than the man who popped up seven minutes from time in that 1985 qualifier to score the goal that took La Albiceleste through to Mexico and condemned Peru to a play-off they would end up losing.

As it turned out, Carlos Bilardo left Gareca out of his squad for Mexico 1986. Speaking at a press conference on Monday, the Peru coach discussed the possibility of reaching his first World Cup at the expense of his own country: “It’s a sentimental thing . It’s a personal matter, very private. I’m a professional and everything that happens will be about football. It’ll have nothing to do with sentiment.”