Before the World Cup, to anyone scanning the list of nations looking for a second team to support, or even a first, then Peru immediately stood out.
Their evocatively-stylish kit sees to that before you might dig a little deeper for reasons why this South American nation deserves your casual, half-hearted support. But scratch the surface and there’s plenty more that grabs the eye beyond the red sash.
Just their presence in the list of attendees at the party in Russia is a novelty. Not since 1982 have Peru played in the World Cup finals but Los Incas were quite clear upon accepting the invitation that not only were they in it for a good time, they were going for a long time.
Ricardo Gareca, the only manager at the tournament who could pass for Iggy Pop, has assembled a talented squad that despite being cursed by a defence lacking anyone standing at six feet or taller, has genuine ambitions of reaching the knockout stages, presumably at the expense of Australia or Denmark.
Their fans appear to believe as much as the manager and the players, who belted out the national anthem with such gusto in Saransk that it made you forget the absence of Italy’s pre-match tub-thumping which enhances every tournament the Azzurri are in attendance. A 36-year absence was reason enough huge numbers of Peruvians to make the trek to Russia, and the stories behind some of the journeys deserve a happy ending. There were 43,000 tickets bought in Peru though reports suggest the travelling army is twice that size.
That belief stems not only from the entertaining style that Gareca has implemented but also perhaps from the nature of their qualification. When you consider the fortune that shone upon Peru to bring them to finals, the more open-minded among us may suggest that a higher power wants them there.
Their place in the qualification play-off was presented to them after Chile, who finished above them in the reckoning, appealed to overturn a 1-1 draw against Bolivia, who fielded an ineligible player. Chile were successful and were awarded a 3-0 win, but because the Bolivians committed the same sin against Peru, their 1-0 defeat was reversed. By filing the appeal, Chile allowed Peru to make up the point they trailed by.
Even then, in the final round of matches, Peru needed to draw with Colombia after Chile had been beaten 3-0 by Brazil. Peru trailed until David Ospina inexplicably helped Paolo Guerrero indirect free-kick into the net. Either they exhausted all their fortune on their way here, or destiny is calling.
Peru fans at the Mordovia Arena may have veered towards the more sceptical of those two possibilities after watching Denmark’s smash and grab job. But the performance from seemed to be the home team offered plenty of encouragement that the fairytale could yet have a happy ending for the travelling hordes.
Gareca’s men were comfortably the most adventurous and creative side, but like any good underdog, they carried with them the lingering and entertaining potential for calamity.
17 – Peru attempted 17 shots without scoring against Denmark; only Argentina (27) have had more at World Cup 2018 so far. Unlucky. pic.twitter.com/XtDz2UmRGU
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 16, 2018
The most obvious example of that was the dreadful waste of a golden opportunity to take a lead that few would have begrudged them. Christian Cueva did wonderfully well to earn a penalty immediately before the break but his execution of the spot-kick, when it was eventually awarded via VAR, was catastrophic.
Peru’s spirit was again evidenced in his team-mate’s reaction towards Cueva when the half-time whistle quickly followed. Understandably, the Sao Paulo attacker was devastated but his attempt to keep a lid on his emotion probably wasn’t helped by the impromptu pity party on the pitch. To some outsiders it may have seemed counter-productive but at least it demonstrated the togetherness that runs through Gareca’s ranks.
And Cueva did not let his regret affect his second-half performance as he and Andre Carrillo on the right remained a persistent threat. Creating opportunities was not a problem but the finishing touch was lacking. Guerrero came as close as anyone with a backheel that symbolised Peru’s imagination, but the fact the ball trickled the wrong side of the post also summed up their misfortune here.
Their adventurous spirit ultimately cost Peru the wining goal. They shackled Christian Eriksen so creditably for the opening hour but Peru’s commitment to attack eventually gifted the Spurs magician the space to perform. He led a three-on-three, which was bad enough from a defensive standpoint, but two defenders opting to close the ball presented Eriksen with the simplest of channels through which to supply Yussuf Poulsen.
Again, Peru’s response was positive and determined but as the clock ticked down and the chances passed, the feeling grew stronger that this was not to be their day. Thursday, though, might be because Gareca’s men showed more than enough to go into the France game in Yekaterinburg with the belief they can achieve the victory they now need if they are to realise their potential of reaching the knockout stages.