Lima – football in the city of kings

LIMA is not renowned as a global footballing hub, although the country’s major clubs are mostly located in the Peruvian capital. The local population is football mad and they’re passionate about their teams – and bull-fighting – even though they struggle to be competitive forces in South American club competition.

Peru’s clubs have struggled to make an impact in the Copa Libertadores and in recent years, they have scarcely been seen beyond the group phase. Since Sporting Cristal, one of Lima’s top clubs, reached the final in 1997, losing to Brazil’s Cruzeiro, only eight times have Peruvian clubs made it into the knockout stage.

Roots

Lima is a city that many people are wary of because of its reputation, although crime has dropped dramatically during the pandemic. It is a sprawling metropolis that is home to around a third of Peru’s population. The Spanish, who conquered the country in the 16th century and founded the city in 1535, called Lima the “the city of kings”. Today it is popular for its cuisine and as a result, a lot of decent quality restaurants have sprung up. Each year, Lima welcomes around 2.5 million tourists.

Football was introduced to Lima and Peru in the late 19th century by British sailors and the country’s first organised league was inaugurated in 1912, a Lima-centric competition that included teams emerging from the city’s major factories – such as Sport Inca, Sport Progreso and Sport Vitarte. 

Sport Alianza, the club that became Club Alianza Lima, was formed in 1901 by workers at the local horseracing stables in the Victoria district of the city. Victoria was an area dominated by Afro-Peruvians, but football became the pastime of white Anglo-Peruvians. Very few black players featured in those early years. Today, Alianza have more fans across Peru than any other club.

Club Universitario de Deportes was formed by students in 1924 and started life wearing a pristine white kit. However, after an ill-fated trip to the laundry, the club’s strip came back as a shade of yellow. Hence, Universitario now play in cream shirts and shorts. Universitario’s support base has traditionally been from the middle and upper classes, but they have also attracted fans with right-wing political beliefs.

The clash between Alianza and Universitario is known as the El Clásico Peruano (the Peruvian classic), a passionate fixture that has often exploded into violence among the fans.

Sporting Cristal were formed in 1955 in the Rimac district of the city by owners of a brewery. Rimac is now an area overrun by what are known as Pueblos jóvenes – shanty towns. Sporting play at the Estadio Alberto Gallardo in Rimac, a 11,600-capacity ground, but their big derbies and cup games are held at the Estadio Nacional.

Deportivo Municipal were founded in 1935 and their golden period was between 1938 and 1950 when they were Peruvian champions four times. Deportivo were the first to get a taste of overseas competition when they were invited to take part in the first championship of South American clubs which was held in 1948 in Santiago.

Universidad de San Martin (known as USMP) are a relatively young outfit having been established in 2004 as the first public limited company club, and they have already been Peru’s champions three times: 2007, 2008 and 2010. Despite their impressive success, the club is without a permanent stadium.

Universitario are the best supported club in Peru in terms of attendances – in 2019, they averaged 12,700 at their home games, more than double the league average. Alianza regularly get over 11,000, while Sporting Cristal and Deportivo Municipal attendances fluctuate from 5,000 – 9,000. Universidad San Martin struggle to get more than 2,000 at most games. 

Ambition

Peru were part of the first World Cup in 1930 and for a while fancied their chances of becoming a force in the game. David Goldblatt, in his fine work, The Ball is Round, suggested Lima had ambitions to become the “Montevideo of the Andes”. Peru started to develop some outstanding players and in 1936, in the infamous Berlin Olympics, they reached the quarter-finals of the football competition. Three years earlier, a team comprising Peruvians and Chileans, the so-called Combinado Del Pacífico, went on an extensive charm offensive in Europe, pressing flesh and demonstrating that South America had a lot to offer the football world. Their exhaustive fixture list included matches with Celtic, Newcastle United, West Ham, Barcelona, Saint-Etienne and Bayern Munich. The majority of the squad came from Lima’s Alianza and Universitario and some went on to become part of the Peru Olympic team in 1936, including the outstanding Alejandro Villanueva, who played for Alianza and his aerial power (he was 6ft 6in) earned him the nickname, “the Peruvian Dixie Dean”. Villaneuva died tragically young, a victim of tuberculosis in 1944.

Teofilo Cubillas

More recently, Peru charmed the crowds in Mexico in the World Cup of 1970 when a talented young player named Teófilo Cubillas helped his country reach the quarter-finals. Cubillas, a native of Lima, played for Alianza and is considered to be one of the greatest Peruvian players of all time. He scored five goals in both the 1970 and 1978 World Cups and played 250 games for Alianza. 

Peruvian football has often flirted with disaster and has faced many challanges. In 1964, over 300 people were killed in a riot in Lima during an Olympic qualifier between Peru and Argentina. This incident, the worst ever disaster to involve football was seen as a reflection of pent-up discontent over the massive inequalities in Peruvian society at the time. Some 23 years later, the Alianza team, returning from a game in Pucallpa, was wiped-out in a plane crash when their Navy aircraft plunged into the Pacific Ocean. There was also a hint of scandal in the 1978 World Cup when Peru capitulated against Argentina, losing 6-0 in a game the hosts had to win by four to qualify from the second stage group. There have been countless theories behind this astonishing result, including the agreement between the two countries for a consignment of grain to be sent to Peru if Argentina achieved the right result.

Decline

Peru’s economic decline in the 1980s impacted their footballing fortunes. Although they appeared in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Peru were nowhere to be seen on the global stage again until 2018. South America experienced a decade of turmoil in the 1980s and in Peru – La Crisis de Los Ochentas – peaked with debt defaults in 1984, hyperinflation peaking in 1990 and 350,000 people per year leaving the country. In the 1990s, the Fujimori government led the economic recovery. Although 20% of the country lives below the poverty line, Peru has been one of the fasted growing economies in the world, although growth has slowed in the past two years. The country also has other issues to deal with such as refugees from Venezuela and Alianza have linked up with the United Nations Refugee Agency to support integration of people arriving in Peru.

Alianza have won just six of the last 30 Peruvian championships, while Sporting Cristal have secured 10 and Universitario eight. Lima continues to dominate domestic football, although the last champions were  Binacional, a team from the city of Juliaca formed in 2010.

Like most countries, Peru suspended its football league during the pandemic and attempted to restart in August. By the end of November, the 2020 season will finally be over. The chances are, a team from Lima will be celebrating.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA

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