Ricardo Gareca bids to join rare group by leading Peru to Copa América title | Jonathan Wilson

Jack Greenwell was born in Crook in the Durham coalfield in 1884. His career as a football player took in just two clubs: Crook Town and Barcelona. But as a coach he was a visionary, leading Barça for seven seasons before becoming an evangelist for the game in South America.

He died in Bogotá in 1942, having suffered a heart attack while driving home from a training session.

Marcos Calderón was born in Lima in 1928. He also had a limited playing career, representing Carlos Concha and Sport Boys, and also achieved far greater renown as a coach, winning 10 league titles at four different clubs. He died in 1987, as a plane carrying his Alianza Lima side crashed into the Pacific near Callao.

They were two men from very different backgrounds but they both led Peru to the Copa América. On Sunday Ricardo Gareca, as he leads Peru against Brazil in the final, could become the third. He was born in Tapiales, to the south-west of Buenos Aires, in 1958. He was an angular forward known as both as el Flaco (the Thin One) and el Tigre (the Tiger). He won 20 caps and played for Boca Juniors, River Plate, Vélez Sarsfield and Independiente as well as having a three-year stint in Colombia with América de Calí.

He was a much more accomplished player than either Greenwell or Calderón but, like them, he has turned out to be a far better manager. He led Talleres to promotion, won a Peruvian title with Universitario and then returned to Argentina to lift three league titles with Vélez in a four-year spell. His football was perhaps too dogged to attract the attention of the grandes – and a brief stint with Independiente in 1997 started miserably and got worse – but his attitude was welcomed at el Fortín where, since the days of Victorio Spinetto, there has been a preference for fibra over flamboyance.

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In any reasonable world Gareca would at some point have been given his chance on the spinning carousel of the Argentina manager’s job but there are few worlds less reasonable than that of Argentinian football administration. And perhaps he, now, prefers a world he can dominate, where he has control.

The pragmatism that was successful at Vélez has been welcomed also with Peru who, in his four years in charge, have achieved heights unknown since the glory days of the seventies. In 2015 they reached the semi-finals of the Copa América. A year later they eliminated Brazil before losing to Ecuador on penalties in the quarter-final. They then qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1982.

This is their first Copa América final since Calderón’s side beat Colombia (after home and away legs and a play-off in Caracas) in 1975. It has not, it should be acknowledged, necessarily been pretty. Nor have Peru been consistent. In the past year they have lost at home to Ecuador, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Colombia. There is an argument that they are better in tournaments, when Gareca has his players together for a protracted period and can drill them properly – but then they lost 5-0 to Brazil in the group stage, looking horribly vulnerable to set-plays.

Peru’s players celebrate their semi-final win  in Porto Alegre which secured a rematch against Brazil.

Peru’s players celebrate their semi-final win in Porto Alegre which secured a rematch against Brazil. Photograph: Jose Mendez/EPA

It was, admittedly, to all intents a dead rubber given Peru already had four points and the likelihood was that would be enough to go through as a best third-placed side (although the damage done to their goal-difference could have made it a close-run thing). And the first two Brazil goals were each freakish in their way. But still, it meant Peru, after beating Colombia on penalties, reached their semi-final against Chile having scored in only one of their four games and with a goal-difference for the tournament of minus three.

But in that semi-final Peru were excellent. Paolo Guerrero led the line superbly and was rewarded with the final goal. Yoshimar Yotún took his goal with admirable calm after the mistake by the Chile goalkeeper, Gabriel Arias. Pedro Gallese capped a fine display in goal by saving an injury-time penalty. This was a complete Gareca performance: defensively solid, full of commitment and with intelligence and ruthlessness up front. Following the second-half collapse against Brazil, here was real tenacity of character.

They will need that again in the final. Brazil, of course, are huge favourites but Tite’s side have not been especially fluent in this tournament and, playing their first game in the Maracanã for six years, they will be under extraordinary pressure. “The defeat to Brazil was very tough but this game will be different,” Yotún said.

“We always kept a low profile, we tried to work hard in games which we were never favourites, and that makes us stronger.”

For a team to win a final against opponents who have beaten them by five in the group stage would be extraordinary but West Germany did it to Hungary in the 1954 World Cup. Brazil, perhaps, will be more worried by the precedent of four years earlier when Uruguay beat them at the Maracanã to snatch a World Cup they had assumed to be theirs.

And if Peru can pull off a second Maracanazo, it will almost certainly be down to Gareca, who would rightly take his place alongside Greenwell and Calderón in the pantheon.


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