The idea that Ricardo Gareca would one day become a hero of the Peruvian people would have seemed preposterous back in 1985, when he scored the late goal that saw Argentina grab an automatic qualifying spot for Mexico ’86 at Peru’s expense.
In fact, it still seemed pretty unlikely in March 2016, six matches into the qualification process for Russia 2018 and just over a year into his reign as Peru national team coach. At that stage, the country had picked up just four points and already seemed to be switching their attentions to qualification for 2022.
But, after turning things around to guide Peru to their first appearance at a World Cup in 36 years, Gareca is rightly recognised as a hero. One of the enduring images from their celebrations was that of a beaming Gareca being tossed up into the air by his overjoyed players; it displayed the unity of a team whom the country have taken into their affections.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Gareca told La Nacion. “Of course, there are places where I have also felt cherished… but here there is a whole country behind me.”
Gareca was always confident that his side would be able to recover from their slow start. The 60-year-old felt they had been unlucky not to pick up more points, and insisted that they would develop further over the course of the qualifying process. The Copa America Centenario in the summer of 2016 provided him with further time with his squad and was the catalyst for the run of six wins, four draws and two defeats that secured them a playoff against New Zealand.
Peru’s success over New Zealand — a 2-0 win in Lima came after a 0-0 draw in Wellington — was just reward for the execution of a clear and methodical plan. Gareca is not immune to superstition — he believes in touching the dress of a bride to provide good luck before important matches, for example — but is, in general, an advocate of process over quick fixes.
That was evident during his four-and-half years at Velez Sarsfield in Argentina, which yielded three league titles, while his work with Peru saw him first put the fundamentals in place and then gradually add further elements and variations.
Peruvian journalists also highlight Gareca’s ability to provide the squad with the confidence to take on every opponent as equals. His personal approach has convinced them to invest fully in his project.
“He is like a father to the players,” Daniel Albornos, who was given his debut at Talleres de Cordoba by Gareca back in 1996, told ESPN FC. “He constantly teaches you things. He knows a lot about football and really helps the players. He protects them, gives them advice. He is always at the side of the players, and that is the key to his approach.”
With Peru, there is perhaps no better example of the success of Gareca’s methods than Christian Cueva. A skilled, yet somewhat wayward, attacking midfielder, he was a bold pick for the 2015 Copa America given that he hadn’t played for the national team in three years, had been unable to establish himself abroad and was in the midst of disciplinary problems.
Gareca saw a diamond in the rough. He encouraged Cueva to knuckle down, cut out distractions and make the most of his obvious talent. The coach was rewarded with some impressive performances from the midfielder as Peru made it through to the last four before falling to hosts and eventual champions Chile.
Moves abroad to Toluca and then Sao Paulo followed; Cueva is now a key player for the national team.
“When I listen to his words, it is like my father or my mother is talking to me,” Cueva explained in a recent TV interview. “I will always be very grateful to him. He never looks at a player without first looking at the human being. That made an impression on me. He was always there, even in the most difficult moments. More than a coach, he is a psychologist.”
The result of Gareca’s tactical acumen and motivational skills is a Peru side which combines attractive passing football with decent defensive organisation. They are unbeaten in 14 matches coming into Saturday’s final warm-up match against Sweden, and have scored 10 and conceded just once in winning all four of their friendly fixtures this year.
The news that captain Paolo Guerrero will now be able to play in the tournament after having his drugs ban postponed has provided them with an additional boost.
This summer’s World Cup will be the first for all the players, and for Gareca too.
Despite scoring the goal that secured Argentina their place at Mexico ’86, he was left out of Carlos Bilardo’s squad for the tournament itself. “[It] was the hardest and most upsetting thing that happened to me in my career,” he told La Nacion. “I cried inconsolably.”
With his adopted nation fully behind him, Gareca will have the opportunity to write himself a happier World Cup story in Russia.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.