Defying all the odds in the World Cup Qualifiers
The World Cup Qualifiers have never been easy since they were introduced. Especially those contests in the African and South American regions require enough grit and skill to overcome the challenges and claim a place on the Greatest Show on Earth.
During the World Cup Qualifiers of Mexico 1970 for the CONMEBOL region, The 10 teams were divided into 3 groups; two groups with 3 teams and one group with 4 teams. The teams played against each other on a home-and-away basis. The group winners would qualify.
In Group 1, Peru were accompanied by Argentina and Bolivia.
The Bolivia v Peru match on 10 August 1969 is infamous for being fixed by Argentina in favour of Bolivia at Lapaz. Match referee Sergio Chechelev annulled a valid goal from Peru without any justification, allowing Bolivia to win 2-1. Years later, Chechelev admitted that Argentina had paid him to favour Bolivia.
Against Argentina in Buenos Aires, the last game of the group, Peru managed a 2-2 draw, preventing Argentina’s intervention from succeeding in the end.
This has been the only time that Argentina failed to qualify to a World Cup tournament.
The impact of Didi
The Peruvian side of 1970 was coached by the legendary World Cup winner Brazilian Didi, who is considered one of the greatest midfielders ever in the history of football. He would gel together a bunch of talents like Teofilo Cubillas, Hector Chumpitaz, and Gallardo to give their best ever performance in Mexico. Didi not only helped to polish their skills but made the unit mentally strong to face any tough circumstances.
Cubillas, who would go on to become his nation’s greatest ever player, scored five goals in the 1970 tournament and praised Didi for honing the shooting technique which would drive his future success.
“Didi was responsible for my free-kicks, shooting, and for making me, a right-footed player, into a two-footed player,” said Cubillas.
On May 31, 1970, just when the ninth FIFA World Cup commenced, a devastating earthquake jolted Peru and left the whole nation in tatters.
The undersea earthquake struck on a Sunday afternoon and lasted about 45 seconds.
The shock affected the Peruvian regions of Ancash and La Libertad. The epicenter was located 35 km (22 mi) off the coast of Casma and Chimbote in the Pacific Ocean, where the Nazca Plate is being subducted beneath the South American Plate. It had a moment magnitude of 7.9 and maximum Mercalli intensity of VIII (Severe).
The earthquake engenders an avalanche of rock, ice, and snow almost 3000 ft wide and 1.6 km long that maraud into coastal Peruvian towns burying everyone and everything in its path. The catastrophe took the lives of almost 70,000 people and left nearly a million people homeless.
The Peruvians decided to leave the tournament for home, but in the end, postponed the idea and focused on conquering adversity.
The classic encounter against Bulgaria
Didi regrouped his men. Chumpitaz, Miffin, Gallardo, Challe, and Cubillas were shaken, but took inspiration from their father figure, Didi.
Mentally disturbed, but still trying to regain their lost mojo, Bulgaria shocked them by taking a lead of 2-0 within 50 minutes of the match.
Then Didi brought the diminutive attacker Hugo Sotil on for Julio Baylon in the 51st minute and the game changed in an instant.
Just over twenty-three minutes later, Peru were leading 3-2.
Gallardo and Chumpitaz scored to bring the scores level before Cubillas put the ball in the back of the net with a superb piece of individual brilliance.
Peru displayed the brand of football, which Brazil played during those days and Didi was hugely responsible for installing the Brazilian attacking instinct within the team.
That marvelous comeback is still regarded as one of the greatest in the history of the World Cup.
It was a triumph over adversity.
Road to the quarterfinals
Four days later, it was the Moroccans who challenged this exceptional Peruvian side. Peru once again made life difficult for themselves against an arguably weaker side and the scores remained 0-0 until the 65th minute. Then again, just like in the game against the Bulgarians, something clicked and they scored three goals inside 10 minutes – Cubillas struck twice.
The final group game saw Peru face mighty West Germany. This time, however, their slow start was severely punished, a Gerd Mueller hat-trick in the first half putting the game away. Cubillas pulled one back just before the half-time interval but there would be no repeat of Bulgaria fairytale.
Peru placed second in Group 4 and in the quarterfinals, their opponents would be Pele and Brazil
Peru win hearts
The Brazil side of 1970 was extraordinary and Peru had the slightest of chances against them. Brazil were aware of their coach Didi, who knew each and everything about Brazil. Rather than trying to disturb the rhythm of Samba Boys, Didi’s Peru kept their attacking style intact.
Brazil were 2-0 up inside 15 minutes through goals from Roberto Rivellino and Tostao.
Gallardo pulled one back for Peru and the two teams went into the half-time interval with the scores at 2-1.
Tostao struck again in the second half to restore Brazil’s 2-goal advantage only to see Cubillas make it 3-2.
With 15 minutes remaining on the clock, Jairzinho struck Brazil’s fourth which dented any chances of a Peruvian comeback.
But, Peru gave Brazil the scare with their courage and fighting spirit.
Cubillas the hero
Cubillas was the hero of Peru in that eventful World Cup. He struck five times and was scoring in every match until their journey ended in Guadalajara.
In an interview with FIFA.com he said, “We won 3-2 after going 2-0 down. There’d been an earthquake in Peru just a few days earlier and we found out just before we went out to play that 50,000 people had died. Knowing that we’d brought a little bit of happiness to the country was a feeling that is impossible to put into words.”
Cubillas won the Best Young Player award in 1970, just as Pele had done in 1958.
An even higher compliment was paid after the tournament’s conclusion when Pele was asked if he would be returning in 1974 to dazzle the world for the fifth time. “No,” he replied, “but don’t worry. I have a successor and his name is Teofilo Cubillas.”
Not only Cubillas but as a matter of fact, the whole Peruvian unit provided enough joy to the Mexican crowd in that tournament.
They had won the hearts and became one of the Latin American forces to be reckoned alongside Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay for a short period of time.