The slide of Peruvian football
When Peru burst on to the scene with beautiful and vibrant football in the 1970 World Cup, some compared them to the great Hungarian side of the 50s, most compared them to Brazil and all agreed that a new power had emerged.
Five years later they were South American champions - but it soon proved to be a tale of one generation, which had some good moments in the 1978 World Cup and fizzled out four years later. Peru were not too far off making it to Mexico 86, and only goal difference kept them out of France 98. But they have not been back to the World Cup since 1982, and barring a sporting miracle, they are not going to be in South Africa in 2010. With 10 of the 18 qualifying rounds completed, Peru are bottom of the table.
In 2005, when the country hosted the World Under-17 Cup, I had the privilege of running into Teofilo Cubillas, Scotland's executioner in 1978 and the brightest star of that 70s generation. Where, I asked him, had Peruvian football gone wrong?
He sighed and began by saying, "that's a big subject."
Three years later I suspect that an answer to the same question would be prefaced by a longer, deeper sigh. Peruvian football is now in utter chaos.
The country was set to stage the South American Under-20 Championship next January. On Friday it was replaced by Venezuela. The tournament could not go ahead in Peru because the government, through its sports institute (IPD) is in open conflict with the local FA (PFP), and especially its president Manuel Burga.
First elected in 2002, Burga and his team are accused of not bringing the FPF statutes in line with Peruvian law. The IPD gave him a five-year suspension, but in defiance of this Burga stood for re-election (a year late) and won a second mandate. As a consequence the IPD does not recognise Burga. It owns the stadiums that were to be used in the Under-20 Championship, and will not hand them over for use by a FPF under his administration.
It gets worse. Fifa traditionally takes a hard line on anything seen as government interference in FA matters. It has given a deadline of 21 November for problems to be sorted out or else Peru is facing a suspension.
It seems that the majority of Peruvians are in favour of the IPD's stance (I'm writing this while looking at an opinion poll where 87% blame the FPF for the current situation, and only 11% blame the IPD). Burga will hope that the support of Fifa will compensate for any lack of domestic backing, especially as a suspension from Fifa will exclude Peruvian clubs from international competition - which could prove a persuasive argument to rally forces to his side.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, if Burga has lost the confidence of those in Peruvian football then his continued presence is surely counter-productive. But it is equally clear that changing the head of the PFP will not get close to solving all the problems.
One of the most striking aspects of contemporary Peruvian football is the cloying culture of negativity. Alone in South America, Peru has over the last 25 years developed a seedy tabloid press which specialises in grubby and falsely moralistic stories about footballers drinking and womanising.
After supposed high jinks following last year's draw with Brazil, some of Peru's top players were suspended from the national team - Pizarro (who still angrily declares his innocence), Farfan, Acasiete, Mendoza - players that Peru can hardly afford to leave out. One of Peru's top TV presenters is currently in prison after making unfounded remarks about the off-field behaviour of striker Guerrero. She was chasing the audience that such items seem to guarantee.
There is something very unhealthy about this fascination. There is no doubt that standards of professionalism in Peruvian football could improve. But there seems to be a dose of self-hatred in the local obsession with footballers straying off the straight and narrow, as if the reader is confessing that he too would succumb to the same temptations if he was in the same situation.
Former Peru player and coach Juan Carlos Oblitas has drawn attention to the insecurity and lack of self-esteem of the Peruvian players. His point is emphasised by the team's campaign in the current World Cup qualifiers.
They have yet to lose at home - despite playing Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, among others. They haven't played much football, but they have run and tackled and scrapped and tried to show the Lima crowd that they are not just a bunch of drunkards.
In their 5 away games, without the same emotional backing, they have collapsed, losing all 5, scoring 1, conceding 17.
"My generation were stronger physically and mentally," Cubillas told me three years ago. And there were other things on his mind - like the fact that in his day there were good coaches working in the state education system. As he says, the sad state of Peruvian football is a big subject.
Comments on the above piece in the space provided below - send your other questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple next week.
A question about the 21-year-old Uruguayan striker Edison Cavani: Following his emergence at the South American Championship in 2007 he was wanted by AC Milan and Juventus before signing for Palermo. He has done well for them since he has been there, as well as featuring for his national team. He seems a strong centre forward with good finishing ability and has a good scoring rate for such a young player in Serie A. Do you think he would be suited to the Premier League? And in your opinion could he become one of Europe's best strikers?
I picked him out in World Soccer magazine as one of the most promising players on show in the last South American Under-20 Championship, so I haven't been surprised by his progress. I was amazed by how hard he worked - it's a gruelling competition, games almost every other day in searing heat, but towards the end of the competition I remember him chasing some 60 metres back to break up an opponent's counter-attack. Whether it's wise for a striker to do all that running is debatable, but any coach would be delighted with his spirit. I was impressed with his finishing off either foot and in the air, thought that he turned and linked the play well. He's powerful - I think he could do well in the Premier League. It's early to talk about becoming one of Europe's top strikers, but he's certainly a prospect.
Lots of Brazilian footballers leave Brazil early for Europe and are forgotten. Years later they may be called up for national teams in Europe. Pepe at Madrid, Deco at Chelsea and Eduardo at Arsenal are just a few who stand out. Now Italy may call up Amauri of Juventus. Isn't Brazil worried about these players coming back to haunt them in the world cup 2010?
Don't forget Marcos Senna, champion of Europe! There was speculation that Brazil might call up Dunga for next week's friendly against Portugal, but it didn't happen in the end.
The short answer is no, Brazil's not as worried as you might think about this situation. We're talking about a giant country - population of around 190 million - which produces so many players but can still only have 11 in the starting line up. Pepe, Deco, Eduardo - they were unknowns at home when they got the chance to play for their adopted countries. If they believed at the time that there was a possibility of playing for Brazil they would almost certainly have waited.