Soccer

Soccer fever is shaking up Peru as they set eyes on the World Cup

Fans of Peru support their team in the first half as Peru takes on Croatia in an exhibition match at Hard Rock Stadium on Friday, March 23, 2018.
Fans of Peru support their team in the first half as Peru takes on Croatia in an exhibition match at Hard Rock Stadium on Friday, March 23, 2018. pportal@miamiherald.com

Peru is arriving very late to the World Cup party, but is surely intent on making a loud entrance after a 36-year absence.

How loud?

Try an earthquake-like tremor … but more on that in a minute.

“Los Incas,” as the Peruvian national soccer team is known, defeated Croatia 2-0 on Friday night in an exhibition at Hard Rock Stadium.

Andre Carrillo, with his hair dyed gray, booted in a first-half strike, and Edison Flores used his left foot to knock in a rebound in the second 45, much to the delight of the crowd of 46,893, which was dominated by red-and-white clad Peru fans.

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Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic (No. 7) and Peru midfielder Renato Tapia (No. 13) react as forward Andre Carrillo (No. 18) scores the first goal against Croatia, in the first half as Peru takes on Croatia in an exhibition match at Hard Rock Stadium on Friday, March 23, 2018. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Peru played the final 16-plus minutes with only 10 men after Yoshimar Yotun was issued a red card. But the team still had enough to blank a sluggish Croatia.

Both teams have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, which starts June 14 in Russia. But the Peruvians, who hadn’t qualified since 1982, were the last team to make the field of 32.

They qualified this past Nov. 16 with a 2-0 playoff win over New Zealand at Estadio Nacional in Lima. When Jefferson Farfan scored the game’s first goal, the country shook.

But this was no natural disaster.

It was national pleasure — roughly 32 million people feeling simultaneous euphoria. Peruvian fans celebrated their qualification with such fervor that it caused an earthquake alert on some apps that measure seismic activity.

Peru made the World Cup field a full 233 days after Brazil became the first nation to qualify.

Christian Ramos scored that second goal against New Zealand, collecting a loose ball following a corner kick.

Farfan, who wept on the field once his nation’s win over New Zealand became official, hopes to score more goals in Russia. After all, he will be on familiar terrain as his club team is Moscow Lokomotiv.

Known for his speed, Farfan has scored 23 goals in 79 Peru caps, including three in his past four contests.

Paolo Guerrero is Peru’s other big scoring threat. But the Peruvians showed plenty of quality on Friday, from Carrillo and Flores to Renato Tapia and Farfan.

The fans at Hard Rock Stadium loved the show. There are roughly 250,000 Peruvians living in Florida and Puerto Rico, and maybe about 150,000 in Miami alone.

They filled Hard Rock, but this was a performance that surely resonated from the Peruvian coast to the mountains and the jungle. Indeed, the entire nation seems infatuated with “Seleccion Peru.” They even love their coach, although it didn’t start out that way.

The Peruvian coach is 60-year-old Ricardo “The Tiger” Gareca, who has been directing the team since 2015. Gareca was once hated by Peruvians — his goal for his native Argentina prevented Los Incas from qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

But now, he is a hero, and he believes strongly in this Peruvian side.

“We will face teams loaded with first-level players,” Gareca said in Spanish when asked about the World Cup on Friday. “But we have first-level players, too.”

As for the job ahead of them this summer, Peru has been placed in Group C. The group favorite is France, followed by Denmark, Peru and Australia.

Peru is a 200-1 long shot to win the World Cup — only eight nations have worse odds. But Peru is also No. 11 in the FIFA rankings, so it remains to be seen which one has the proper assessment between Las Vegas bookmakers and soccer’s governing body.

Croatia, meanwhile, is a 40-1 shot. This is a nation with a short but relatively successful World Cup history. It made the World Cup in the first year it was eligible, in 1998, making a run all the way to the semifinals before losing to host and eventual champion France.

Since then, Croatia has made four more World Cups. Even so, Croatia was in danger of not making it this year when coach Ante Cacic departed with one game left in qualifying. Former Croatian midfielder Zlatko Dalic took over and led Croatia to a 2-0 win over Ukraine. Croatia then beat Greece 4-1 on aggregate in a playoff.

Midfielder Luka Modric, 32, is Croatia’s captain and star player — he also plays for Real Madrid. Ivan Rakitic, a 30-year-old midfielder who plays for Barcelona, and forward Mario Mandzukic, 31, are other Croatian stars. Mandzukic, who plays in Italy for Juventus, is 6-foot-3 and is Croatia’s main threat in the air.

Croatia has been placed in the World Cup’s Group D, ranked as the second favorite behind mighty Argentina. Nigeria and Iceland are also in the group.

Dalic had said before the game that he hoped the Peru game would prepare his club for playing another South American side, Argentina, in the World Cup.

It didn’t work out that way as Croatia got dominated, and Dalic blamed much of the defeat on the fact that many of his players have recently come over from playing in tough European club leagues.

“All my players had difficult seasons, but we can’t use that as an excuse,” Dalic said. “We did not play well. I told my players, ‘If you play like this, you can’t do [anything in the World Cup].’ 

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