(Reuters) - If points were awarded for artistic impression and technical merit at the World Cup, Peru would have comfortably qualified for the last 16.
Although their first World Cup appearance for 36 years ended in group stage elimination, the South Americans made a positive and lasting impression all-round, whether for their enterprising performances or their travelling army of joyous fans.
Even Denmark coach Age Hareide, whose side qualified for the last 16 alongside France at Peru’s expense, said his team were somewhat fortunate to have progressed.
“The team that got three points, Peru, played the best football,” he said after his side’s 0-0 dismal draw against France on Tuesday - a game that will only add to the perception that the wrong team is going home.
But his words will also add to a sense of frustration over Peru’s early exit.
They dominated the first match against Denmark, but lost 1-0 after missing a first-half penalty, and even managed to outplay France for parts of their second match, only to go down by the same score.
There was a sense of inevitability about their 2-0 win over Australia in the final game in Sochi on Tuesday, when they were already out of the competition and the pressure was off.
The most pleasing aspect of Peru’s performances was that they faced their physically stronger opponents as equals and took the game to them, a brave move considering the relative inexperience of their squad.
Unlike other South American teams, Peru do not boast world class players and only one member of the 23-man squad, Watford’s Andre Carillo, is based with a club in the so-called big five European leagues.
But the Andean nation has always produced naturally talented players and has a proud tradition of “treating the ball well”, as their Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca put it, and he insisted they respect their heritage.
The fans were a story apart.
They filled the stadiums hours before kickoff and sang a heart-warming rendition of “Contigo Peru”, a Peruvian waltz — a style blending guitars, voices in harmony and a wooden box drum — originally written for the 1978 World Cup.
If fans of other countries wondered what the fuss was about, they may not have appreciated the sense of despair that Peruvians had felt as their team failed time and time again to qualify from 1982 onwards.
Successive failures also created a vicious circle, adding to the pressure on the team, and the words of the late Real Madrid Alfredo Di Stefano were often used sum up Peru in those years: “We played better than ever, and lost as usual.”
Gareca, who performed a Herculean task in restoring the team’s self-belief after so many years of failures, has not decided whether he will continue for another four years but the
players have already made their feelings clear.
“I can speak for the whole group when I say it would be wonderful if he keep working with us,” said team captain Paolo Guerrero. “The whole of Peru is asking him to say.”
Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty