Here we go again. For the second straight time in World Cup qualifiers, Peru’s fate is determined by the repechaje (playoff) and once again it’s a familiar opponent. Australia, with its beautiful outback landscape, aboriginal culture, schooners, Kylie Minogue and Miles Jedinak. This is where my adulation for you ends. At least until Tuesday.
Peru face Australia for the penultimate spot (Costa Rica and New Zealand wrap up the final berth on the following day) and a chance to join France, Denmark and Tunisia in Qatar. Again, just like 2018, three of the four nations will be together in the same group at the World Cup. The two met in the final day of the group stage as La Blanquirroja said goodbye and achieved their first World Cup victory since 1978 with a 2-0 triumph over the Socceroos. So there is some recent-ish history as four years later, these two sides meet again and the stereotypical banter has already taken precedent. Peruvians think every Australian eats Vegemite and Australians think Peruvians get hurt if you mock Paddington Bear (for the record, neither are true. Especially Paddington. I love him, but not one single Peruvian claims him as one of our own, since you know, he was created by Michael Bond. Though I do love Marmalade, I did immigrate to England and I am Peruvian so I guess I’m more Paddington than Paddington).
Ar-Rayyan, just west of Doha, is the venue for this game, which in itself proves to be a questionable decision, seeing as the whole point of moving the competition to November was because the Qatari heat was too much to deal with in June and July. Alas, at least it’s in the evening local time so the temperature should be more adequate, and both teams would have had enough time to acclimate. If we’re being honest, the tournament raises enough questions as it is and there’s little doubt that every fan with a conscience is dealing with conflicting emotions for this World Cup, so playing these games in Doha in June is the least of it.
Nevertheless, Peru’s unique relationship with the World Cup writes another page and this time it’s in the Middle East. Fate awaits for Ricardo Gareca and his side of overachievers and an entire nation awaits. By the time I write this, there is talk of a national holiday in Peru in order for everyone to watch it. But let’s be honest, you don’t need to tell a Peruvian to take the day off to watch this repechaje. They’re doing it regardless. Peru’s ambassador to Qatar expects thousands of Peruvians will be present. To Qataris, they will probably feel like millions.
Let’s get to it.
Before I get to squad assessments, let me just be extremely clear and without bias. This playoff match, on paper, heavily favors Peru, who sit at -140, according to Caesars Sportsbook. The South Americans have the stronger squad, play in a more competitive qualifying region, have international experience (in international tournaments and a World Cup) and have a more experienced manager who knows how to deal with in-game management better than almost any other coach in Latin America. I would even argue globally. There is a collective understanding between Gareca and his side as they have now been together for almost 100 matches. So if Peru fail to win, it’ll be because of their own undoing, and that’s what Australia could depend on. It’s one game. Nothing else matters. So disrupt Peru’s on-paper dominance and change the script. Ultimately, that’s not an easy task..
Is this Peruvian side stronger than the one in 2018? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s a good question depending on how you assess it. The likes of Renato Tapia, Andre Carrillo, Yoshimar Yotun, Luis Advincula, Pedro Gallese and Christian Cueva for example, all played against Australia in 2018. If they are not better players these days, then they are definitely smarter. They should once again start on Monday. In contrast, Australia’s side is extremely different from the one in Russia. Their captain Matt Ryan remains their leader and guiding compass. Then there is Aaron Mooy, who is just getting back to fitness after not playing competitively this season and refusing to return to his Chinese Super League team Shanghai Port FC, opting to stay with the national team. Melbourne FC’s Mathew Leckie also featured in Russia. There are some members from both cycles, but overall, it’s a different side. And that’s not to say there’s no talent. It’s just mainly untested against other nations from outside their AFC region. Moving there, however, helped them in terms of competition as they ended third in their third round group behind Saudi Arabia and Japan, hence why they’re in this make-or-break game. The main absence is Tom Rogic, previously of Celtic, who was the creative spark in the midfield but left the squad due to personal reasons. That prompted an immediate return of Mooy, who looked decent but tired toward the end against UAE. Rogic is a big loss as manager Graham Arnold will have to utilize all his experience in order to supplement his absence. Other players to watch out for include Scottish-born Aussie Martin Boyle, who plays for Saudi Arabian side Al-Faisaly. His cunning ability on the right wing, and familiarity with the region, is important to this side.
Australia are dangerous in the air and focus heavily on the wings from counterattacking situations, specifically the right side. But it’s their ability to slow the game down with dead-ball situations that will be a focal point. Luckily for Peru, New Zealand proved to be a great dress rehearsal earlier this month. They’re not as strong as Australia but pose similar challenges. Gareca, who was there when Australia beat UAE, knows this.
For Peru, the game should be about control. I expect domination in possession and quick movement, with Christian Cueva pulling the strings. On his day, he is unplayable. He is a master of his own dribbling domain and I fully expect the foul count to be high on him. Gianluca Lapadula, the Italian-born, Tacu Tacu Rigatoni king, will take advantage of any defensive mistake while Yoshimar Yotun could also prove to be a difference. He’s the kind of player that just needs minutes for any club in order to feel useful. Ever since arriving to Sporting Cristal after being a free agent, he looks fresher and dynamic — it’s unbelievable to think no European sporting director is looking at him. I know he’s 32 but he still has plenty to offer. Then again, you could say the same thing about almost all Peru’s players. Undervalued by all, but cherished by Gareca. This falls especially at the back as NYCFC’s Alex Callens and Boca Juniors’ Carlos Zamabrano have formed the Peruvian version of the Mighty Ducks’ Bash brothers. They work very well together and their physical dominance will be very important against Australia.
The last thing to leave you with is this sentiment about Peruvian football and our adoration with the World Cup. It comes out of struggle, not success, and that’s why — in my eyes — this will always be the greatest fanbase in the world. Because it’s born out of pain. In the words of Nolberto Solano, who talked to me on ¡Qué Golazo! a few months ago: “For us, we’ve always had to do it the hard way. We’ve had to suffer and even now, until the last one, we’re always going to suffer,” he said. When you hear the Peruvian squad sing the national anthem, it is a literal cry of joy and reflection. It’s a call of unity, both inside and out of the pitch.
Viktor Frankl once said, “What is to give light, must endure burning,” and that might as well be an Inca proverb. Nothing comes easy for Peru. Nothing.
The venue on Monday may be in Qatar, but as mentioned before, there is little doubt you’ll see and hear a lot of red and white inside and outside the stadium. Those chants are historical reminders of heroic achievements from the past that can hopefully push Peru into present glory.
Oh, and it’s my birthday on Monday, too. So hopefully, the celebrations are two-fold. Either way, I’ll be drinking Pisco Sours.
Arriba, Perú. Siempre contigo.
How to watch
- Game: World Cup qualifying — Intercontinental Playoffs
- Date: Monday, June 13 | Time: 2 p.m. ET
- Location: Al Rayyan Stadium — Ar-Rayyan, Qatar
- TV: FS1 and Telemundo | Live stream: fuboTV (Get access now)
- Odds: AUS +350; DRAW +210; PER -140 (via Caesars Sportsbook)