An undersea earthquake off the coast of Peru kills 70,000 people and leaves nearly a million people homeless. Two days later Peru is scheduled to play their 1970 FIFA World Cup opener. This is a tale of football’s restorative power and spirit.
It’s the last day of May in 1970 and an undersea earthquake 35 kilometres off the coast of Peru triggers one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in recorded history.
The earthquake engenders an avalanche of rock, ice and snow almost 3000 ft wide and 1.6 km long that marauds into coastal Peruvian towns burying everyone and everything in its path. The ensuing carnage takes the lives of almost 70,000 people and leaves nearly a million people homeless.
Some 5,000 kilometres away in Mexico, the Peruvian national football team is delineated following the horrifying events back home. The team is scheduled to play Bulgaria in their 1970 FIFA World Cup opener two days later; now against the backdrop of a national tragedy.
Tragedy and Triumph
The Peruvian footballing story is that of misfortune and of occasional brilliance. For a country that is often dwarfed by its more successful neighbours like Brazil or Argentina, Peru has bequeathed us some outstanding tales of courage, sacrifice and of course, disaster.
Peru’s footballing heritage is a reflection of its status quo. In 1964, playing against Argentina in a qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics at the Estadio Nacional, Peru played host to one of the worst riots in the history of football.
Olympic football and Peru have an estranged relationship. Ever since their highly controversial quarterfinal clash against Austria in the 1936 Olympics in Britain, Peru had managed just one solitary win, a 3-1 defeat of India, at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
A draw against Argentina in Lima would send them to Tokyo. Nestor Manfredi put the Argentinians ahead and their lead held until Peru found the back of the net with just two minutes remaining on the clock.
But the Uruguayan referee disallowed the goal citing foul play in the build up. This prompted widespread jeering from the home crowd. Two fans scaled the fencing only to be dealt with by police in riot gear. This brutal assault of a fellow fan further incensed the already irate fans in the stadium. Bonfires were lit and debris was thrown on to the pitch.
The Peruvian authorities, in their finite wisdom, ordered the release of tear gas into the stands. Panicked fans rushed to the exits causing a mass stampede resulting in the deaths of 312 fans while injuring over 500 others.
If scenes inside the stadium were tragic, the streets provided their own particular brand of mayhem. Vehicles and buildings were vandalised, three policemen lost their lives; one of whom was lynched by a mob. Another was tossed from the terraces of the Estadio Nacional onto the pitch.
Peruvian historian Jorge Basardre perfectly encapsulates the cause of this rapid pervasion of panic and hysteria that took hold of the fans that fateful night.
“Our people, especially our lower classes, are full of tensions and frustrations, dark, pent-up passions and angers. This situation is becoming acute under the impact of the population explosion and the poverty of the masses…These people have lost some of their faith and hope. When this happens, then sometimes people will behave more like brutes than men.”
Catastrophe is of course no stranger to Peruvian football. When Montevideo based Bella Vista FC toured Peru in the early 1930s, they met a team from Arequipa in a heated clash that was watched by a contingent of Peruvian soldiers.
Dynamic, attacking and displaying an imaginative brand of football, Bella Vista, under the leadership of Uruguay’s national team captain Jose Nasazzi, claimed a decisive victory. An indignant Peruvian soldier took to the pitch to protest but was beaten by the police. Seeing their comrade wounded, the soldiers descended to the ground but the police opened fire leaving five men dead.
Peruvian football is as chaotic as its social and political climate.
During Fernando Belaunde’s presidency in the 1960s, political instability was rife. Continual internal bickering came to a halt in 1968 when General Juan Francisco Velasco staged a bloodless coup d’etat against Belaunde, forcing him into exile.
Within weeks, the oil industry was nationalised, foreign companies were banned and restrictions were put on foreign imports. This meant even foreign players and coaches found it difficult to ply their trade in Peru.
Two years later, the Ancash Earthquake shattered the Peruvian imagination. With nearly 70,000 people dead and almost a million people left homeless, the Peruvian national team in Mexico were under spine-bending pressure to uplift their country’s mood by taking on Bulgaria in their opening game of the 1970 World Cup.
The tumultuous path
Peru’s journey to Mexico was not without controversy. A qualifier against Bolivia in the dizzying heights of La Paz bore witness to yet another unlawful officiating orchestrated by a rival, in this case, Argentina.
With Peru battling with Argentina for a spot in Mexico, the Argentinians fixed the game in favour of Bolivia. The home team were 2-1 up when Alberto Gallardo’s perfectly legal goal, a thunderous left-footed shot, was annulled by the Yugoslavian referee Sergio Chechelev handing Peru a 2-1 defeat.
Astounded by this lunacy, Roberto Challe, Peru’s other goalscorer head-butted Chechelev to the ground. What followed was a Monty Python sketch.
Chechelev, in the chaos of the situation, could not see who put him to the ground. After a few disorienting seconds, he got up and found midfielder Ramon Miffin towering over him. Assuming that it was Miffin who attacked him, Chechelev showed him a straight red card.
Years later, Chechelev would admit that the Argentinians had paid him to fix the game.
Yet, the dream was still alive for the Peruvians. In their final game of the qualifying round, a 2-2 draw against Argentina at La Bombonera in Buenos Aires, courtesy of a brace from Oswaldo Ramirez, sent Peru to Mexico and made Argentina watch the finals from home.
It was the first time that Argentina had not qualified for a World Cup event.
A few hours after a 0-0 draw between Mexico and the Soviet Union in the World Cup opener, the Peruvians were alerted about the tragedy unfolding back home.
In an era where electronic communication was still largely in its nascent stage, no one in the Peruvian squad was certain of the safety of their loved ones. After an agonising period of contemplation, they decided to go ahead with the tournament, as pride to represent their iconic ‘red sash’ preceded personal grievances.
With their minds understandably somewhere else, Peru took to the pitch at the Estadio Nou Camp in Leon for their opener against Bulgaria.
Coached by the legendary two time Brazilian World Cup winner Waldyr Pereira, or Didi as he is popularly known, Peru more or less played a very attractive brand of football just like the Brazil of old.
Captain and leader Hector Chumpitaz at the back, Miffin and Challe in the middle and Gallardo up front with Peru’s crown jewel Teofilo Cubillas – this was perhaps the tiny South American nation’s greatest side on paper.
But considering the trauma that the players had been under, Bulgaria were 2-0 up inside the first 50 minutes. 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.
The inconceivable comeback played its part in uplifting the spirits of a nation marred by the horrors of an earthquake, however little.
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; a Challe strike sandwiched between two from Cubillas.
The final group game saw Peru face the 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 the damage was already done.
Finishing second behind West Germany meant Peru would face the offensively brilliant Brazil side in the last eight.
Often eulogised as the greatest international side of all time, that Brazil squad oozed style and exuberance. Their triumphs in the 1958 and 1962 came in black and white but in 1970 the world saw them in technicolor.
Pele, the greatest player on the planet, along with the likes of Rivellino, Tostao, Jairzinho – the Brazilians were a class apart in almost all areas of the pitch.
Peru, then, not only had their work cut out but faced an almost impossible task.
Brazil were 2-0 up inside 15 minutes through goals from 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 two-goal advantage only to see Cubillas make it 3-2.
With 15 minutes remaining on the clock, the elusive Jairzinho struck Brazil’s fourth which crushed any hint of a comeback from the Peruvians.
Peru ended their World Cup dream on a disappointing note but held their heads high, giving their blood, sweat and tears for their country against the backdrop of a harrowing calamity.
To this day, the old guard of Peruvian households believe that had it not been for Pele and the magical Brazilians, Peru would have won the World Cup in 1970.
But now, 48 years later, the Peru national side is a shadow of its former self.
After losing their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier opener 2-0 against Colombia back in 2015, Peru faced the daunting task of playing a fantastic Chilean side led by the brilliance of Alexis Sanchez.
Christian Cueva’s red card offence for throwing the ball at Jorge Valdivia’s face made the task all the more arduous against their bitterest rivals.
Yet, the game did not lack entertainment. Braces from Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas put Chile’s total for the night at four while two goals from Jefferson Farfan and a late strike from Paolo Guerrero made it three for Peru.
Despite the 4-3 loss, Peruvian fans and media alike believed in Ricardo Gareca, the former Boca Juniors, River Plate and Argentina strikers who held the reigns of the national team.
“We have to respect the process,” says David Leon Bardi, the editor of El DT Que Llevo Dentro, a football magazine based in Lima.
“Gareca, is trying to give the team something we haven’t had in more than 15 years: character. With the help of new leaders in the federation such as Juan Carlos Oblitas and Edwin Oviedo, he is pressing the restart button. Gareca’s Peru is a team that fights until the end and that is something we haven’t seen since 1998. Win or lose, we are at least showing that we can compete.”
There’s truth in Bardi’s words because if there’s one recurring theme in Peru’s footballing history, it’s the relentless and unflinching fight back in the face of adversity.
Despite their early defeats in the qualifiers, Peru managed to make it to Russia for the 2018 World Cup out of sheer will.
Nearly 10 million people waited in bated breath as a young side tried its luck against the juggernauts of world football. And though they were knocked out out of the group stages with a defeat against France, they won the hearts of the neutrals with their relentless spirit.