Peru’s World Cup Journey: Part 2 – Setback in Saransk as History Weighs Heavy on Christian Cueva

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Not since Loris Karius openly wept on the pitch after the Champions League final last month has the face of one man betrayed as much regret as Christian Cueva’s did on Saturday.

The Peruvian had the chance to score his nation’s first World Cup goal in 36 years. Peru had dominated the first half of their opening match against Denmark and Cueva was handed the golden opportunity to reward their superiority with a spot-kick that he himself had won. As his penalty flew over the crossbar, he saw history pass him by.

Cueva looked devastated as he was consoled by teammates at the interval. His pain was expressed not in the grief-wracked sobs of Karius, but in the quiet tears of a man who knew what the moment meant to the thousands who had travelled hours by land and air to be in Saransk.

He had to recollect himself for the second half, where he showed good energy and intent, but also an excess of selfishness. He was trying too hard to make amends, and spurned several chances as a result. Yussuf Poulsen’s clinical finish showed him how it was done and the tears returned at full time. 

His heartbreak is neither as immediate nor as all-consuming as it was for Karius. Peru still have a chance of going through, and not unless and until they are eliminated will Cueva truly feel the weight of his miss.

The more immediate comparison point may have been Lionel Messi, another South American who missed a penalty at the World Cup on Saturday. “One of the best players in the world [did it too], I saw that,” said Cueva. Penalties are indiscriminate in who they punish.

But nobody can ever accuse Messi of letting his country down, and his penalty miss was an incidental moment in an otherwise legendary career. Cueva doesn’t have that going for him. Like Karius, he could find himself defined for the rest of his career by one horrible moment that he will want to forget but never be allowed to. 

Peru fans were quick to remind each other that Cueva had played a crucial role in the Incas’ qualification, providing a quality assist for Jefferson Farfan to score in the playoff win over New Zealand. He’s only 26 and could return for the 2022 World Cup if Peru qualify.

But that’s a big if, when you consider that none of the Peru squad were even born the last time they appeared at the World Cup. In all likelihood, Cueva has two games to change his legacy. Maybe just one. Lose to France, and Peru could find themselves eliminated before they even kick off their third match against Australia.

They must take great heart from their performance against Denmark. FIFA’s flawed man of the match system gave the honour to goalscorer Poulsen, but anyone will tell that it should have been Kasper Schmeichel. Confident first half saves to deny Yoshimar Yotun and Andre Carillo set the tone for a superb individual display.

Peru played some brilliant football, but they lacked the killer instinct. Farfan wasted their best sight of goal with an effort too close to Schmeichel. Paolo Guerrero, who came on a second half substitute, headed his first chance straight at the Leicester City keeper. Time after time Peru got in around the back but couldn’t get the all-important touch.

The importance of Denmark’s win is writ large in the group table. They share the lead with France, while Australia and Peru are yet to get off the mark. If the second set of fixtures goes as most people are expecting it to, Group C will be all over but the shouting by the end of this week.

By the time Peru face France in Yekaterinburg on Thursday, they will know what they need from the game. Anything other than an Australia win against the Danes earlier in the day means that defeat will eliminate the Incas.

So what chance of beating France? Les Bleus were distinctly off-colour against Australia and only prevailed thanks to a controversial penalty and a fortunate deflection. The performance, described by Ouest-France as “ugly and laborious”, did little to quell doubts that Didier Deschamps is capable of leading his team to glory. 

But it’s still France, the Euro 2016 finalists and a side with more attacking talent than any other team at the World Cup. Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Nabil Fekir, Olivier Giroud, Ousmane Dembele…it’s terrifying. And they’re only going to get better as the tournament goes on.

Their defence is solid, but not infallible. Samuel Umtiti is subject to lapses of concentration and moments of madness, like the handball against Australia. Cueva will fancy his chances if Benjamin Pavard plays at right back again, and left back Lucas Hernandez wasn’t brilliant on his World Cup debut either.

France will be favourites, but Peru will be the neutrals’ favourites. It would be such a shame for their brilliant supporters to go home unrewarded. As much as 80% of the Mordovia Arena was filled with Peruvian fans, and they created one of the best atmospheres of the tournament so far.

They sang the name of Christian Cueva at full time, determined that he should not face this adversity alone. They were still singing in the streets of the city for hours after the game, despite the result. They have come to have a party and nothing that happens on the football pitch will stop them.

When Peru qualified for the World Cup, the celebrations in Lima were so rapturous that earthquake warnings were triggered. If Ricardo Gareca’s side can somehow find a way to overturn France on Thursday, Russia should brace itself for some serious seismic activity.

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