SCHRUNS, Austria, June 8 (Reuters) - It was the late Real Madrid great Alfredo Di Stefano who once said “we played better than ever and lost as usual” and it is a feeling that Peruvian supporters have known all too well.
The Andean nation, set for a first World Cup appearance for 36 years, has always produced talented players. However, the national team have exasperated their followers for three decades, buckling at the first sign of trouble and often imploding completely.
Repeated failure to qualify for the World Cup created a vicious circle with more pressure on the team and a sensationalist media adding to the tension with reports of players partying before games.
At one point, they went 12 years without winning a qualifier away from home.
But the last three years have seen an extraordinary turnaround under Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca.
The 60-year-old, who still sports the same shoulder-length hair as he did during his playing days, has brought calm and serenity to a previously hysterical environment and turned the players into national heroes.
When Peru played Saudi Arabia in the small Swiss town of St Gallen last Sunday, fans travelled from all over Europe to watch them, filling the Kybunpark stadium to its 18,000 capacity and turning it into a sea of red and white.
Remarkably, Peruvians have been the seventh biggest foreign-based buyers of World Cup tickets, ahead of England, France and Spain.
A combination of improved training methods, psychology and return to Peruvian football’s roots are behind the revival.
Peru’s fitness coach Nestor Bonillo, who has been one of Gareca’s closest assistants for much of his career, remembered the time they first worked in Peru with the Lima club Universitario in 2007.
Apart from a poorly maintained infrastructure, he noted that the players only behaved as professionals when they were on the pitch.
“There wasn’t any real consciousness of nutrition, resting, hydration... of having the profession in their heads 24 hours a day,” he told Reuters at the team’s hotel at the Alpine resort of Schruns, where they are preparing for Russia.
When Gareca and his staff took over the national team in 2015, Bonillo said they had very little information to go on.
“We started to put together a database on the players... how many metres the players ran, the intensity, we compared what happened when there was a shorter interval between matches, or we played a different altitudes,” he said.
“That allowed us to take decisions we couldn’t take earlier when we didn’t have this.”
Sometimes it was the small details which counted.
The coaching staff noticed that when Peru’s players returned home to play in World Cup qualifiers, they would go straight to their families, eat at irregular hours and fail to allow for jet lag. So Gareca decided they should be picked up at the airport and taken to the team camp.
“The player is the personality of the family who everyone wants to be close to, but this took up energy, time and it meant they had their heads elsewhere,” said Bonillo. “We organised things differently and it produced results.”
Psychology has also played a part.
“We made sure that the burden (of not qualifying) was carried by those who played before and not by us,” he said, adding that Gareca always emphasised the positive.
“In between pointing to the defeat or the virtue, he always prefers the virtue,” he said.
Peru are unbeaten in their last 14 games and their 3-1 win over Croatia in March was their first against European opposition for 19 years - a crucial psychological blow as they face Denmark, France and Australia in Group C.
Most importantly, Bonillo said, Gareca understood Peru’s football heritage.
“He respected the essence of Peruvian football,” said Bonillo, remembering players from the golden era of the 1970s such as Teofilo Cubillas, Julio Cesar Uribe and Cesar Cueto.
“That comes from past generations, it’s about playing good football, treating the ball well, the joy of playing and their ability to play their way out of tight corners.”
The Peruvian federation’s sporting director Juan Carlos Oblitas added that the players stepped up a level when they pulled on a Peru shirt — the opposite of many countries where they are criticised for keeping their best for their clubs.
“When the players come here, they get a new lease of life,” he told Reuters. “The national team gives them new blood, it revitalises them.”
“The culture of negativity has been replaced by a positive one,” added Oblitas, a former Peru coach who played for the country at the 1978 World Cup.
“This group has shown the whole of Peru, not just in sport, that by working as a team and working well, you can reach your objectives and that is what makes me really proud.” (Writing by Brian Homewood Editing by Christian Radnedge)