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Peru is going crazy over U-17 national soccer team’s success

Like in most South American countries, football (some call it soccer) is by far the most prominent sport. However, when we start talking about success, one feels that the football “gods” have neglected Peruvian national teams for more than two decades. Well, to tell you the truth, it is actually Peru’s football system – especially the youth system – that is to blame. But today is not the occasion to look for who’s at fault. Today is turning into a national holiday that rivals the celebrations of Peru’s Independence Day.

Since last Sunday, when Peru’s U-17 youngsters (barely) qualified for the 2007 World Cup hosted by South Korea in a few months, Peruvian football pride has been restored. The country has fallen into a football frenzy that his hardly understandable or even imaginable in most parts of the world. As a matter of fact, even myself as an avid football fan has never seen anything like it.

After all, it has been 26 years since a Peruvian team could qualify for the world’s football stage. I was in Germany in 1974 when Beckenbauer, Mueller and co. won the World Cup at Munich’s Olympiastadion and 16 years later when Matthäus, Brehme and Voeller repeated this feat in Rome 1990. I have also witnessed Michael Jordan’s and Scottie Pippen’s Chicago Bulls winning its third NBA championship in a row. But these celebrations seemed rather subdued compared to what is going on here the last couple of days.

Since the umpire’s final whistle blew last Sunday, the Peruvian mass media is reporting nothing else. They have put the 16 year old youngsters on a pedestal that is almost reaching the clouds in the sky and will be very hard to step down from. Numerous honking cars are decorated with red and white flags. Politics, a booming economy that still leaves about half the population living in poverty, the war on the coca farmers and other topics like corruption or the maritime border issue with Chile; all this stuff has to step aside.

Since the team landed at Lima’s Jorge Chavez International airport and a large cheering crowd welcomed the teenagers home like they were Bono, Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler or Al Gore at this year’s Oscars, every single step of every single player is captured on celluloid and broadcast live on national TV. Herds of reporters are storming into the houses of Peru’s latest heroes begging for interviews from family members, friends, their school teachers and even the local priest. They all have to tell what kind of guys they actually are, how they grew up, and what was the main ingredient for a promising football career. Was it the home made ceviche? Was it Peru’s favorite soda, Inca-Kola? Inquiring minds want to know the magic potion. To put this all into perspective, please keep in mind: the team actually finished fourth at the South American tournament, behind new champion Brazil, Colombia and Argentina. Only the first four teams secured a berth for the upcoming World Cup and Peru finished one point ahead of Venezuela who were crushed by Colombia 5-0 in the last game. The team actually finished the tournament’s final round with only one win, two ties and two losses. And remember, this is the U-17 squad! Nobody has ever heard names like Reimond Manco, Christian La Torre or Eder Hermoza before until roughly two weeks ago. This is not Peru’s football flagship, the team that normally fields household names like Pizarro, Farfan, Solano or ..well, whoever else is usually underachieving.

But nothing is topping today’s celebrations. The team was received at noon by a proud and ecstatic President Alan Garcia at the Government Palace. Every team member received a special Peruvian medal of honor, or something like that. The whole scene reminded me of a movie called Forrest Gump in which Tom Hanks was asked by John F. Kennedy “how does it feel to be an All-American?”. I just hope none of the nervous Peruvian youngsters drank too many Inca Colas resulting in an overpressurized, sensitive bladder before the presidential handshake ….

After the official press photo was taken, the Peruvian military in shiny and spiffy looking red and blue uniforms paraded on Lima’s Plaza de Armas in front of the palace. Who would have thought that even the country’s defense system took a day off. It seemed that even a foreign president such as Michelle Bachelet or George W. Bush would have become envious because they would not have received that kind of recognition.

But hey, as I mentioned before, it has been 26 years since any Peruvian national football had any similar kind of success. And this was the era of Peru’s best football player ever: the Teofilo Cubillas era. Peruvians still refer to the seventies and early eighties as the “golden years”.

Peru’s national stadium “El Nacional” is a shrine for Peruvian sports greats. Its outside walls are decorated with oversized, monumental pictures of every sportsman or woman – mostly volleyball women and football players – who had a somewhat exceptional career on an international level.

I am certain that today’s U-17 team will also look down very soon on the chaotic, noisy, stinking bypassing traffic on Lima’s main express way.

But I am not blaming any of the proudly celebrating Peruvians. I feel good for them, they deserve some positive news. I just reveals the nation’s cravings for the tiniest taste of success. It reveals how desperate Peruvians are for a little international success and recognition, whether they are indigenous, black, mestizos, cholos, gringos or colorados, whether they are rich or poor, young or experienced. Yes, success does taste sweet. Success unifies, even a fourth place finish with a loosing record.

One thing is certain: Peru is already the world champion in celebrating!

Viva el Peru!!!