SARANSK, Russia — Augusto Caceres, 81, had all but given up hope of seeing his beloved Peru at a World Cup again during his lifetime.
He has been to 13 straight World Cups, beginning with the 1970 tournament. And for much of that time, Peru had failed again and again to make it to soccer’s biggest showcase. Still, Caceres kept going, and hoping that Peru might somehow be a part of the World Cup for the first time since 1982. And now Peru is.
Dining in a restaurant here Friday, a day before Peru was to make its joyous return to the World Cup in a game against Denmark, Caceres spoke about his adventures, of the great players and the great teams he has seen over the years, and of Peru’s continued absence from it all.
“I went back home every year and they didn’t improve,” he said, recalling all the years of failure and of the Peruvian national teams that did play good soccer but had bad luck. “In soccer, you win by scoring goals, and when 10 years had passed by, I thought they will never make it.”
But they did, and now Caceres will have a lot of company. For after a 36-year wait, Peruvians are not taking any chances. Who knows how long it will be until the next World Cup opportunity arises. Better to take part in this one.
As a result, thousands upon thousands of fans from the Andean nation and the greater Peruvian diaspora have descended on Russia, with more arriving daily, giving Moscow’s Red Square the air of Lima’s own Plaza Mayor. Even at the World Cup opener Thursday, between host Russia and Saudi Arabia, Peru’s distinct uniform shirt — a white shirt with a red sash — was a regular presence among the throng.
Francois Braendle, a Swiss banker based in Russia, said he hadn’t seen anything quite like the Peruvian invasion. “Honestly, I believe the whole country of Peru is here,” he said on Thursday. Behind him, in Moscow’s early evening sunshine, the red-and-white tide marched on toward Nikolskaya Street, a gathering point for fans from across the world, but another place where Peruvians now seem to outnumber the rest.
Peru’s presence in the World Cup was hanging in the balance until the very end of South America’s qualifying tournament, widely accepted to be the toughest in soccer. And had Brazil scored either one fewer goal in its 3-0 victory over Chile, or had Paraguay beaten last-place Venezuela at home (instead, it lost), Peru would have been shut out of the World Cup again.
But instead it was Peru that was handed a secondary route into the World Cup via a playoff game against New Zealand, and its 2-0 victory unleashed the sort of celebrations one might expect in a soccer-mad nation. A national holiday was declared, and travel agencies in Peru and FIFA’s ticketing website were swamped by people wanting to go to Russia. Officially, in its most recent update, FIFA said it allocated 43,583 tickets to Peruvians, but the real number might be considerably higher, since those supporting Peru in Russia this week seem to have come from anywhere and everywhere.
Being at the World Cup can be an expensive proposition. Caceres, who splits his time between a home in Connecticut and Lima, said he spent $2,000 securing resale tickets for Peru’s three group games, starting with its matchup with Denmark in Saransk on Saturday. He has committed to spending $20,000 in total.
Already, there are all sorts of tales of the lengths that Peruvians have gone to pay for their World Cup odyssey. At least some of those tales, no doubt, are true. There are the ones about remortgaging a home or selling a car. And there are the more exotic solutions, such as the one hatched by Diva Rivera, 24, who is an actress and the owner of a clothing store in the Amazon city of Iquitos. Rivera started a campaign called “donate 1 sol so I can go to the World Cup” and traveled across the country with a plan to gather 1 Peruvian sol, the equivalent of 30 cents, from each person she met.
“It was a challenge that came about from a kind of fever that arose when the team qualified for the tournament,” Rivera said in a telephone interview from Saransk after arriving by train for Peru’s game Saturday. There was also the person who put up a sign at an apartment complex in Lima that read: “For Sale: Duplex Apartment for Trip to Russia.'’ And the person who posted a message: “Help my dream come true, everything is for sale for trip to Russia.'’ Perhaps they made it to Russia, too.
“Thirty-six years,” said Sergio Inamine, 33, his short answer to what has been described as “una locura,” or a madness, that has descended upon Peru. “That’s the answer, that’s all you need to know,” added Inamine, who had traveled from Peru to Moscow and was headed to Saransk.
Peru’s years of soccer failures came as the country struggled to cope with political and economic crises as well as a destructive, and prolonged, guerrilla war with the Maoist insurgent group Shining Path. “Soccer is a reflection of society, and we were lost, we had terrorism, bombs all the time, we had the worst presidents, corruption, and sport was forgotten,” Inamine added.
Failure to reach the World Cup had become so regular that Peruvians adapted it as a motif for everyday life, including the repayment of debts, said Martin Llerena, 33, who was with Inamine. “When you owe someone money it became usual to say, “I’ll pay you when Peru goes to the World Cup.'”
In a strange twist, the man behind Peru’s renaissance, coach Ricardo Gareca, known as el Tigre, is partly responsible for the wait having been so long. In a World Cup qualification game in 1985, Peru was leading Gareca’s Argentina, 2-1, when, with the game entering its final stages, he poked the ball into the net to snatch a 2-2 draw and take away a place in the tournament from Peru.
It turned out to be a bittersweet moment for Gareca. When Argentina later announced its final squad for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Gareca was left off, and he has been waiting to be involved in the event ever since.
Now Gareca and a new generation of Peruvian players finally have their chance, and when they look up into the stands Saturday, they can expect to see Peruvians just about everywhere.
“This gives us special strength and energy,” Gareca told reporters on the eve of the first game, when asked about all the Peruvians who had come to Russia, to Saransk. “We hope we can give it back to them because people from all areas of society have made a huge effort to come and watch. We will also make a big effort — it really is something worth seeing, it really is, don’t miss it.”
Shortly before he spoke, the latest planeload of Peru’s traveling army landed in Saransk. The wheels of S7 Airlines Flight 5377 had hardly touched ground when the chanting started anew.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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