Peru pro­vid­ing a good news story as South Amer­ica qual­i­fy­ing reaches its con­clu­sion

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT -

SOME of the cov­er­age of Syria’s draw with Iran last week seemed to re­gard it as a foot­ball fairy­tale, an ex­am­ple of the power of sport to bring joy to a trou­bled land kind of thing.

Un­for­tu­nately, it’s a bit more com­pli­cated than that. The ‘a na­tion re­joices’ nar­ra­tive doesn’t make much sense when the team rep­re­sents only half a na­tion, a half which is killing the other half in large num­bers. The ex­tent to which the Syr­ian team is iden­ti­fied with the regime of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad was un­der­lined ear­lier this year when vice-pres­i­dent of the Syr­ian FA Fadi Dab­bas said the team were play­ing for “our pres­i­dent,” and that the job of a team was to show the world that “Syria is fine”.

Two years ago, then man­ager Fajr Ibrahim, who calls As­sad “the best man in the world”, turned up to a press con­fer­ence wear­ing a T-shirt bear­ing As­sad’s pic­ture, as did a cou­ple of his play­ers. For­mer team mem­bers have said play­ers were be­ing forced to at­tend demon­stra­tions in favour of the regime.

Even the player whose late equaliser against Iran, Omar al Somah, earned Syria the play-off has just re­turned to the team after a five year ab­sence in protest against the regime. They now play Aus­tralia, and the winners will go into a play-off against the fourth-placed North and Cen­tral Amer­ica team to go to the World Cup in Rus­sia.

There have been sug­ges­tions that some mem­bers of the team are play­ing be­cause they fear mea­sures would be taken against their rel­a­tives oth­er­wise. The regime con­trols their pass­ports which means de­fec­tion is not an op­tion. Syria play their games in Malaysia as their nor­mal home sta­dium in Da­m­as­cus is be­ing used to store ar­tillery and train sol­diers.

So re­cast­ing the story of the Syr­ian team as a heart-warm­ing tri­umph over ad­ver­sity is in supremely bad taste. Even if cir­cum­stances were dif­fer­ent and the story less com­pli­cated there would still be some­thing sim­ple-minded about mak­ing this a ‘sport tran­scends grief ’ story. Al­most half a mil­lion peo­ple have died in the Syr­ian civil war and sev­eral mil­lion have been made home­less. Pre­tend­ing that the re­sult of a foot­ball match some­how lessens the enor­mity of all this is as cheap as it gets. Some things are bigger than sport.

If you’re look­ing for an en­cour­ag­ing World Cup story per­haps it’s best to look else­where.

To Peru for ex­am­ple. Beloved by past gen­er­a­tions of Euro­pean foot­ball fol­low­ers for the flair they showed in the World Cup fi­nal tour­na­ments of 1970 and 1978, the lads from the land of Cu­bil­las and Chumpi­taz have not made the fi­nals since 1982 and fin­ished rock bot­tom in the 2010 qual­i­fiers. Yet with two rounds left in the marathon South Amer­i­can qual­i­fy­ing tour­na­ment, Peru lie in an un­ex­pected fourth place, good enough for au­to­matic qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Even fifth would earn them a play-off against New Zealand, pretty much a guar­an­teed vic­tory.

Peru’s best-known player is prob­a­bly vet­eran striker Paolo Guer­rero, a fine player for Ham­burg in the Bundesliga for sev­eral years who’s now with Fla­menco in Brazil. Other play­ers are drawn from clubs in Peru, the US, Hol­land, Den­mark, Por­tu­gal, Ecuador, Brazil and Eng­land where winger An­dre Car­illo has re­cently joined Wat­ford on loan from Ben­fica. Yet this far-flung bunch, man­aged by Ar­gen­tinian Ri­cardo Gareca, cur­rently lead both Ar­gentina and Chile fol­low­ing a ter­rific 2-1 win last Tues­day away to Ecuador, who had beaten both Uruguay and Chile at al­ti­tude in Quito.

Ar­gentina’s em­bar­rass­ing qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign reached a new low the same night when they were held to a 1-1 draw at home to group whip­ping boys Venezuela. But, though cur­rently in fifth, they are level on points with Peru, who they play at home in their next game and should get the last au­to­matic place after Brazil, Uruguay and Colom­bia. All the same a to­tal of 16 goals from 16 games, given the awe­some fire­power avail­able, places ques­tion marks over new man­ager Jorge Sam­paoli, pre­vi­ously noted for help­ing Chile make the jump to world class.

In his ab­sence, Chile look a lesser team, trail Peru by a point and will prob­a­bly be fight­ing it out with them for the play-off place. They’ve just en­dured per­haps the most cat­a­strophic week of any team in the com­pe­ti­tion, a home trounc­ing by Paraguay be­ing fol­lowed by a loss to Bo­livia.

The fi­nal day on Oc­to­ber 10 when Peru host third-placed Colom­bia, Chile are away to al­ready-qual­i­fied ta­ble-top­pers Brazil and Ar­gentina travel to Ecuador, should be quite the fi­nale.

Per­son­ally, I’m root­ing for Peru who I fell in love with when they de­stroyed a boast­ful Scot­land at the 1978 fi­nals in Ar­gentina. It would be great to see that ul­tra-cool white jer­sey with the red di­ag­o­nal stripe on the big­gest stage again. They’ve been their usual care­free selves dur­ing the cam­paign and have both the third best at­tack and third worst de­fence. Peru re­ally have got their coun­try be­hind them, the 60,000 crowd which saw them beat Bo­livia 2-1 in Lima last week was the joint high­est for any match in the South Amer­i­can qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign.

Now that’s a real good news story.

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