Heading into the Copa America Centenario, I, like many folks, pretty much wrote Peru off as group play kicked off. Sure, Peru had finished third the past two Copa America tournaments, but they weren't on track to do it again, right?
Well, as Peru are set to take on favored Colombia in the quarterfinals on Friday night (5 pm PT, FS1, UniMás, UDN), they are on the cusp of making the semifinals for a third straight tournament, after winning their group, which included (an admittedly weak) Brazil.
What's the secret to Peru's Copa America success, where they've now reached the last eight knockout stages in a row? Here's three reasons why they seem to be Copa America specialists, of a sort, at this point:
Play horribly in all other games
Peru haven't made the World Cup since 1982. That's eight whole World Cups they've missed! Only Venezuela have missed out on a World Cup in that span, and they've never qualified for it.
They seem like a good bet to miss the 2018 World Cup, too, as they are well behind the contending pack in CONMEBOL qualifying at this point. So with their status as a third-tier South American side most of the time, they tend to sneak into Copa America tournaments as perpetual underdogs, and overperform again and again.
Produce a gamebreaker or two, but not too many
South American soccer pundit Tim Vickery has long maintained that Peruvian soccer suffers from a lack of ambition -- as in, the players tend to be comfortable reaching a certain, domestic-based status and don't really push to get better.
It may not be fair to essentialize an entire country's population like that, but for whatever reason, Peru tends to have a star or two at a time these days, not many Peruvians who make it big in Europe.
In the past, it was Jefferson Farfan and Claudio Pizarro, who both missed this Copa America. This time, it's Paolo Guerrero, who won the Golden Boot the last two Copa Americas and put Peru on the right track with the lone goal in Peru's tight win over Haiti to kick off their tournament. As long as you have a star capable of stepping up, you can grab a big result now and again.
Domestic leagues can build a good national team, too
We're used to the model in international soccer where national teams that have players all over the globe pick those star players and try to build a strong team on the fly for tournaments and qualifying campaigns.
Many of the lower-ranked teams, of course, don't have their stars playing in Europe, and are instead reliant on their own domestic league to produce national team players. In the case of countries like Peru, it effectively becomes a necessity because that's where the players are.
But we've seen with many successful national teams that having a core of players from the domestic league often helps come tournament time. Spain's two-time Euro and World Cup champs were build primarily from Barcelona and Real Madrid players, while Italy's triumphs have often come with a large Juventus contingent.
And in the case of countries like Peru, having a good understanding among the players on the squad, who play with and against each other all the time, can give them a leg up on more talented but less drilled sides, and fool those teams that don't scout their league very well. Even with Brazil's weak squad, this Peru team was certainly third-best on a talent level in their group, and yet they won the group.
So there you have it. Three easy steps to trick people into thinking you'll fail at the Copa America and proving them wrong over and over again. I think it's safe to say Peru contending for the actual title is not a strong possibility here, but maybe that's what they want me to think...
What do you think? Leave a comment below!