Peru has been eliminated from the World Cup. It took thirty-six years for another Peruvian national squad to make it all the way back to the biggest stage in the world. Now, depending on where you are in the globe your reaction to this news may vary. You might have some notions about football and understand the significance this elimination has for a whole country. You might be heartbroken but encouraged by the fact that this appearance and performance could mean a new cycle of glories and proud achievements for Peru’s favorite sport. Or you might not have any idea what I am talking about.
By the way, I did call it football and not soccer. For a very particular reason too, because calling it soccer does not do justice to what this sport actually means. Because, while sometimes—maybe even most of the time—football is just football, other times it’s anything but that. In But if you don’t believe me then consider the following passage of the sport’s history in Peru.
In 1936, the Summer Olympics took place in Berlin. By that time, Adolf Hitler had already established himself as Fuhrer of Nazi Germany and wanted to utilize the Games as an opportunity to promote his government and antisemitism. He even considered prohibiting the participation of Jewish athletes in the sporting event, but when the threat of boycott from other nations became real, he eventually had to allow athletes of other ethnicities to compete. Underlying all of this was an economic interest but also an ideologic one; these Olympics had to ensure huge profits for the government, but they should also serve to showcase the supremacy of the Aryan race that the Nazis professed. The choice for a main event was obvious then. Football was the only sport that could guarantee a massive economic turnout and be in the eyes of the world at the same time.
What Hitler did not count on, however, was the fact that the Peruvian national team—comprised mostly of players from African, Indigenous and mixed descent—would eventually face off against Austria (his country of birth) in what would be one of the most controversial episodes in football’s history.
The match between Peru and Austria went long. Hitler stood watching the game from one of the stadium boxes. During the first half of the match Austria managed to score two goals. After the half time, Peru was able to come back and tie the score minutes before the match would end. There would be an extra time. In the overtime, the Peruvian squad dominated and scored five more goals. Three of which were eliminated by the referee. Joseph Goebbels, a Nazi politician and Minister of Propaganda, had threatened the referee’s life if he didn´t do anything to overturn the score. Hitler was furious and in disbelief. The match ended and Peru beat Austria with a final marker of 4-2.
The Austrian team did not accept their defeat as well. They asked for a rematch. A controversy was woven around the Peruvian victory. They argued that the fans had harassed them the whole game and that the Peruvian players had done so as well. That night, authorities from FIFA, the Olympics Committee and others held a meeting in which it was decided that the match between Peru and Austria would be nullified. When the Peruvian Olympic team received notice that a rematch had been scheduled, they decided to withdraw from the competition. At that time, this team had been colloquially nicknamed “El Rodillo Negro” or ‘the black steamroller’ because of the ethnic makeup of its players but also their high skill and dominance in the game.
In Peru, the National Football Team has been one of the instances where the composition of its members actually reflects the ethnic and social diversity of the country they represent. If I were to ask you what you think the ethnic makeup of Peru’s inhabitants was based solely on the advertisement you’d find in the streets and shopping centers, you’d probably think Peru was a Scandinavian country. The truth is that a large part of the Peruvian population very rarely gets to see themselves represented in a light that does not shine a negative image on them. Contrary to past years, this national team is not filled with the scandals of corruption, personal controversies, and debauchery that kept Peru out of the World Cup for more than three decades.
This squad does not only symbolize a sporting achievement, it has also shown us youthful faces of the “other Peru”. Black and brown faces that are beautiful, worthy of respect and admiration, and a testament to the rich and complex history of this nation. Hopefully, these faces will start popping up more and more in the ads and commercials as this country starts reclaiming them. So, the next time you are in Peru and you hear people chanting in the streets, celebrating a goal, or crying over a defeat, know that sometimes it’s not just about football.