In-form Peru bring eye of ‘The Tiger’ to World Cup playoff with Socceroos

Ricardo ‘The Tiger’ Gareca takes the core of the Peru team that beat Australia 2-0 at Russia 2018 into showdown for Qatar

They call Ricardo Gareca, the coach of the Peruvian national team, “The Tiger”.

He received the nickname for being a fearless and tireless striker for Argentine teams Boca Juniors, River Plate, Velez Sarsfield and Independiente, and then America de Cali in the Colombia League, where Gareca won two league titles and was runner-up in three Copa Libertadores. Gareca played 20 internationals for Argentina, scoring five goals, including one against Peru, which eliminated them from the 1986 World Cup and sent them into a 36-year drought between tournaments.

When Gareca joined Peru as coach in 2015, he looked calm. “You always have to think,” the 64-year-old tells his players today, pointing to his head. From that base of mental strength, unity and discipline, Gareca has built a Peruvian team that, after 40 years, could repeat the feat of their 1978 and 1982 sides in qualifying for consecutive World Cups if they defeat Australia on Monday.

With a renewed team featuring current stars Edison Flores and Miguel Trauco, Gareca told reporters in 2016 he had “found the team I have been looking for so much.” Peru recovered in the second part of the qualifiers for Russia 2018 to reach fifth place in South America. In the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand, Peru tied in Wellington 0-0 but won 2-0 in Lima to return to the World Cup finals. Through the streets and parks of Peru there were monuments of Gareca and his players. ‘Los Incas’, after many years, were once again pride of the nation.

At that 2018 World Cup in Russia, Peru’s best moment was the 2-0 victory against Australia, their rival in the 2022 playoff on Monday night. From the team that played against the Socceroos in Sochi, between eight and seven players could be part of the Peruvian starting team to face Graeme Arnold’s side.

Although the recent Australia-United Arab Emirates game was played on a Tuesday, thousands of Peruvians were as attentive as if it had been a weekend game. They saw an Australian team that respects the essence of vertical football and players in very good physical condition with clear strengths in free kicks and corners.

But Peruvians also know the Socceroos’ are experiencing a period of renewal. Important players from Russia 2018 like Mile Jedinak and Tim Cahill have retired, and Australia is no longer that team from 2006 with international figures like Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell or Cahill who were able to beat Uruguay in the playoffs. Yet it is still possible to identify coach Graeme Arnold’s tactical discipline and see he has been growing players, such as Ajdin Hrustic, a champion of the Europa League with Frankfurt.

Path to playoffs

Peru’s journey to the Qatar 2022 playoffs was much the same as it was four years ago: a poor start to qualifying, a comeback in the finals and a playoff against a team from Oceania (although Australia is now part of the Asian confederation).

To reach Monday night’s playoff against Australia, Peru made an epic comeback to reach fifth place in the South American qualifying rounds. Until June 2021, the Peruvian team was last in the standings with only one point from five games. But with an away victory against Ecuador and a good performance in the Copa América 2021 (where Peru came fourth), the red and white recovery began.

Since September 2021, Peru have not lost at home and have added two more away wins against Venezuela and Colombia to finish in fifth place with 24 points and give Peruvians enough hope to dream of another World Cup.

How Peru plays

Ricardo Gareca usually uses a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 scheme. The main characteristic of this Peruvian team is their superb treatment of the ball. They play with a lot of possession and look for attacking options against any rival. After six years together, Gareca’s squad plays almost from memory.

Players to watch

Peru’s 90-game goalkeeper Pedro Gallese is a legend in Peru and a veteran of the 2018 campaign; Christian Cueva is the most skilled in the squad with the ball; André Carrillo is a world-class right winger; and Gianluca Lapadula, an attacker who was born in Italy to a Peruvian mother, has starred for Peru since 2020.

Peru celebrate during their friendly win over New Zealand.
Peru celebrate during their friendly win over New Zealand. Photograph: José Jordan/AFP/Getty Images


One of Peru’s main strengths is that it has maintained its core playing group for the last six years. This team knows each other well, and that will give them a high level of optimism going into this sudden-death clash.


Gareca has a strong and solid team, but problems begin when one of the eleven starters has problems with suspension or injury. Lack of depth is where Peru suffers most. In the last two years Gareca has struggled to find replacements for key positions. Senior strikers Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfán are both missing for Monday’s fixture, meaning Lapadula has had to appear from distant Turin to cover the place of the ‘9’. But beyond ‘El Bambino’ there are not many other names that arouse confidence in the Peruvian attack.

Local support

Beyond the anxiety of a second playoff in five years, Peruvians have great confidence in their team. As we speak, the Peruvian government is evaluating whether Monday is declared a national holiday. Despite some negative results, especially in 2020, this year the Peruvian fans have reconciled with their football team. It is a romance that is now at its highest peak.

Pedro Canelo

The GuardianTramp

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