Gallese: Peru can hold our own against any side in the world

No-one disputes that Pedro Gallese is one of Peru’s finest ever goalkeepers. The Orlando City man has been a fixture in the Blanquirroja goal for the last eight years, a period that featured the Copa America campaigns of 2015, 2019 and 2021, when they finished third, second and fourth respectively. Yet none of those continental championships gave the country as much joy as its return to the FIFA World Cup™ in 2018 after a 36-year absence. Gallese was in the starting line-up for the Russia 2018 play-off against New Zealand and for all three games at the tournament itself. In the absence of Paolo Guerrero, coach Ricardo Gareca has entrusted Gallese with the captain’s armband. As well as his responsibility as the last line of defence, the player they call ‘El Pulpo’ (The Octopus) now has the added task of leading his team-mates.

In the run-up to next week’s intercontinental play-off against Australia for a berth at Qatar 2022, the 32-year-old shot-stopper, who is on the radar of several top clubs, spoke with FIFA about the team’s recent successes and the part played by their Argentinian coach.

FIFA: How have preparations for this play-off been compared with those of 2018?

Pedro Gallese: My team-mates and I have been preparing a lot for this match, and it’s always good to be together with them again. It’ll be a very tough game, with the big difference being that this time it’s just a single fixture. In football anything can happen and there are no favourites, so it's going to be a very close thing. Just like us, they’ve been working hard for years to try to get this World Cup berth.

Do you feel less pressure and nerves than for the 2018 play-off?

The nerves will always be there. In fact, I think anyone who doesn’t feel those nerves won’t become a top player. Yes, we ought to have a little more experience as we already know what it is like to go through a play-off. We no longer have the burden of not having qualified for 36 years, but you still feel the pressure. That’s because we’ve worked very hard in recent years and come through some very difficult matches to get to this place. But when the whistle blows, those nerves will disappear and we’ll set about doing what we’ve prepared so much for.

Does the fact that it’s a single game affect strategy?

I don’t envisage either side racing out of the blocks, as I think it’s one of those games where the focus will first be on keeping your goal intact and then gradually working your way into the match. I expect it to be a pretty tough encounter but also different with it not being over two legs.

How is the 2018 Gallese different from the 2018 one?

At this moment in my career, I have plenty of experience and lot of games under my belt. I’m also more mature and know when it’s time to pick up the pace or change the tempo. That should help me a lot in this match. You always try to incorporate new things, things that you observe, and I've become very proficient when it comes to making myself as big as possible. Then, with Paolo not being there, I, along with the other senior members, have had to assume more leadership duties, which is something I’ve been working on.

What does it mean to be team captain of Peru and has it changed the group dynamic?

Without Paolo, some of us have had to assume more of a leadership role within the group. We’ve done that and now have a very strong squad. We’ve stepped up and now we have a very strong group.

Before 2018 Peru had gone 36 years without appearing at the World Cup. What do you remember of those wilderness years?

They were tough times. The memories are of watching the national team, always cheering them on and longing for them to make it to a World Cup, but to no avail. It was a constant dream. When it finally happened and I got to be part of it, I was so happy. The country needed that, needed to see the national team at a World Cup. I always remember watching World Cups and loved to see the South American teams taking part, all the time dreaming that Peru could reach another one.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 11: Pedro Gallese of Peru poses for a portrait during the official FIFA World Cup 2018 portrait session on June 11, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Lars Baron - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

You’ve saved several key penalties, for example denying Darwin Machis in your last qualifier against Venezuela. Do you study opposition penalty takers?

In modern football you have access to a lot of information. We can analyse outfield players just as they can study us keepers. However, in the end you just have to make a decision about how you’re going to try to stop it, taking into consideration everything that has gone on in the game.

Do you feel that being in World Cup contention again is validation for Peru? You said in one interview that you thought some of the team would go on to bigger clubs after Russia 2018, which hasn’t really happened.

As a kid, you always dream of playing in Europe, in one of the top leagues. I’ve always striven for that. This group is working to reach a new World Cup and to be looked at differently. For Peruvian players it is very hard to move abroad, but another World Cup could give us a further boost.

Kylian Mbappe has spoken about the difference between European and South American football. Do you sometimes feel that the latter is underestimated?

Yes, because those who aren’t playing there or have never experienced playing there can say what they like, but they don’t know what it is to travel enormous distances for games, go from one end of the continent to the other, or play at altitude. Nor do they know the kind of pressure you feel going to places like Argentina or Brazil and facing their fans. So yes, it is somewhat underestimated, but if they had to go through our qualifiers, which is quite tough for South American sides, then they’d understand.

The Peruvian people, having endured several political and social crises in recent years, take comfort in the team’s good results. In your opinion, what does the national team mean to the people of Peru?

Politically, those were difficult times for the country, so the national team has always tried to bring a little joy to the people to help them forget their sorrows and how bad things might be for them. Peruvian fans always give unconditional support and get behind the national team. They know we always give everything on the pitch. We feel their support on the social networks and on the field of play, and we want to bring them a lot more happiness.