Photo: Getty

This is the first World Cup since 1982 for Peru, but that doesn’t mean they’re here just to play three games and go home. After weathering an absolutely cutthroat cycle of South American qualifying and earning a spot in a group from which they’re favored to place second and advance, Peru are poised to do some real damage in Russia. La Blanquirroja are a dark horse candidate to make a deep run.

Peru were the very last team to qualify for the World Cup, taking out New Zealand in an inter-confederation play-in round, but that final step belies just how impressive their difficult run through CONMEBOL was. Peru finished fifth in South American qualifying behind powerhouses Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Colombia. Though they failed to beat archrivals Chile in either of their two contests, La Blanquirroja stole the reigning Copa América champions’ spot by a two-point goal difference.

That tie on points came thanks to opposing Colombian keeper David Ospina letting in an easy free kick to give Peru a draw on the final match day of qualifying. That wasn’t the only luck this team had. Peru only won one of their first seven matches in World Cup qualifying, though their 2-0 defeat to Bolivia in that seventh game turned into a 3-0 win for La Blanquirroja after FIFA penalized Bolivia for using an ineligible Paraguay-born player as a late substitute. That was the spark the team needed, and from that point on, Peru only lost two of their final 11 matches, fighting Argentina to a pair of draws and officially announcing themselves as contenders with a 2-1 home win over Uruguay in March of 2017.

This triumphant band of World Cup-bound Peruvians will hope to make some history of their own out in Russia to etch their names alongside past Peru teams in the country’s soccer lore. The Peru national team of the ’70s—the only decade in which the country won any games at the World Cup—remains the gold standard by which all other Peru teams are measured. The 1970 team in particular has a special place in Peruvian hearts. That Peru team was the first one to qualify for the tournament in 40 years, and won a pair of games in the immediate aftermath of a 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Peru that killed approximately 70,000 people. The team went on to have similar relative success at the tournament in 1978, but couldn’t win a game in ’82. After Chile eliminated them from 1986 World Cup qualifying with a playoff win, the national team suffered a tragic setback in 1987, when several players died in a plane crash.

It was a long, slow trek back to competitiveness from there—one that took a speed bump around the 2010 World Cup qualifying cycle when players were repeatedly caught partying before games. The team steadily improved from that scandal, however, with back-to-back third-place Copa America finishes in 2011 and 2015. Finally returning to the World Cup this year was a long time coming.

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Because of CONMEBOL games not getting the kind of widespread attention UEFA matches do, and due to Peru’s absence from the World Cup for so long, this will be most of the world’s first introduction to La Blanquirroja. While Group C favorites France should come out on top, Peru’s games against Denmark and Australia are potential opportunities to put on a show. If they play up to their full potential, Peru could capture the hearts of brand-new fans the world over.

Roster

Goalkeepers: Pedro Gallese (Veracruz), Carlos Cáceda (Veracruz) and Jose Carvallo (UTC)

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Defenders: Aldo Corzo (Universitario), Luis Advincula (Lobos BUAP), Miguel Araujo (Alianza Lima), Alberto RodrĂ­guez (Junior), Christian Ramos (Veracruz), Anderson SantamarĂ­a (Puebla), Luis Abram (Velez Sarsfield) and Miguel Trauco (Flamengo)

Midfielders: Renato Tapia (Feyenoord), Pedro Aquino (Lobos BUAP), Yoshimar YotĂşn (Orlando City), Andy Polo (Portland Timbers), Edison Flores (Aalborgk), Paolo Hurtado (Vitoria de Guimaraes), Wilder Cartagena (Veracruz), Nilson Loyola (Melgar), Christian Cueva (Sao Paulo), Andre Carrillo (Watford)

Forwards: Jefferson Farfán (Lokomotiv), André Carillo (Watford), Raúl Ruidíaz (Morelia), Paolo Guerrero (Flamengo)

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Nickname

La Blanquirroja

FIFA Ranking

11

Manager

Ricardo Gareca

Gareca had a long and prolific career as a forward primarily in the Argentine league and with the Argentina national team, and followed that up with a winding journey as a manager through various South American leagues. A multi-trophy winning stint with his former club VĂ©lez Sarsfield in Argentina earned him his managerial stripes, and he was hired in 2015 to coach Peru.

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While Gareca scored the goal (coincidentally against Peru) that clinched Argentina’s qualification in the 1986 World Cup, he was dropped from the eventual champions before the finals. That was the closest he ever came to the World Cup until now. His status as a former opponent on the international stage, and the inconsistent start to his tenure, both failed to endear him to Peruvians early on in his tenure. But as he eventually turned the squad around and showed a deep connection to the team and what their accomplishments mean to their country, his position as Peru’s leader is now undisputed. “He’s not so much a coach as a friend,” said longtime Peru midfielder Yosimar Yotún.

Players to Watch

Edison Flores

Flores is one of a few talented attacking midfielders in this Peru squad, along with Christian Cueva and Watford’s André Carrillo. None of the others had the kind of World Cup qualifying campaign that Flores did, though. Flores was Peru’s joint-leading scorer in qualification, nabbing five goals, including an important winner against Uruguay. His opener in an eventual 2-1 home win over Bolivia sparked one of the best “Gol” calls I’ve ever heard.

Like most of his countrymen, Flores’s club credentials (he’s currently signed to Aalborg BK in Denmark) aren’t terribly impressive. That hasn’t prevented him from consistently showing up in the right place at the right time for his country in high-pressure moments. While he’s earned the nickname El Orejas in honor of his noticeably large ears, Flores is also one of the easiest Peru players to spot on the pitch because of the way he moves all over it, making an impact on the game as both with the ball and without it. At only 24 years old, he’s already shown enough promise to be one of the cornerstones of Peru’s future, and there’s also nothing stopping him from being their man of the present, too. Inconsistency and injuries have plagued Flores in the past, but a continuation of his qualifying hot streak should be enough to at least lift Peru out of the group stage.

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Paolo Guerrero

Guerrero comes to Russia having experienced a cruel roller coaster of “will he or won’t he” in the build-up to the tournament. If he leads Peru to success, opposing supporters will surely get riled up over whether or not he should have been allowed to compete. That’s because during the World Cup qualification process, the 34-year-old Guerrero tested positive for a chemical byproduct of cocaine. That drug test got him a one year suspension from FIFA, which sidelined him for the play-in round against New Zealand and was set to keep him out of the World Cup.

But the saga was only getting started. Guerrero officially challenged the suspension by claiming the positive test came not from him snorting coke but from him drinking a kind of tea that included coca leaves. That excuse might’ve seemed dubious coming from one of the team’s most notorious partiers, but it appeared to have worked all the same. Guerrero’s appeal was successful, which got his suspension reduced and made him eligible for this summer’s tournament in Russia.

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Yet in a gut punch of a twist, the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and got the reduced six-month ban extended to 14 months, which once again made him ineligible for the World Cup. Then, a Swiss tribunal lifted that ban, freeing Guerrero once more to represent his country. Barring some wacky turn of events in the coming days, Guerrero will indeed be out there with his teammates ready to make Peru proud.

While teammate Jefferson Farfán served as Peru’s more-than-capable replacement striker for the two play-in games against New Zealand, the load he had to carry is much lighter now that Guerrero is in the squad.

Guerrero is your classic finisher, the target man on the end of his midfielders’ assists. Even if he’s not the one generating scoring opportunities, the chances don’t go to waste when they’re handed to him. As a veteran of the Bundesliga, Guerrero is much more familiar with high-level competition than most of his countrymen. He’s been playing in Brazil most recently, but any decline in his talents has been mostly gradual, as his style of play requires confidence and smart execution more than it does athleticism. If Guerrero doesn’t score at the World Cup, something will have seriously gone wrong for Peru.

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How They Play

Gareca started World Cup qualifying with a 4-4-2 formation, but Peru switched after six games to a 4-2-3-1. This new formation clogs the midfield and relies on one scorer up top (usually Farfán or Guerrero) to finish his chances. Peru aren’t especially comfortable with long bouts of possession, and that midfield generally works to swarm opposing players and force quick counterattacks. The majority of their goals come almost immediately after turnovers high up the pitch. In CONMEBOL qualifying, Peru made an astonishingly low average of 1.75 passes before their goals.

The high pressing the team employs also works as a cover for a somewhat shaky defense. Peru are vulnerable on both set pieces and attacks on their fullbacks from the wing. Beating them requires patience, discipline, and the ability to spread the field.

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Group C Fixtures

All times Eastern

June 16, 12 p.m.: Peru vs. Denmark at Mordovia Arena

June 21, 8 a.m.: France vs. Peru at Ekaterinburg Arena

June 26, 10 a.m.: Australia vs. Peru at Fisht Stadium