The South American qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup are done and dusted and the inquiries into what went wrong for the four countries who failed to qualify can now begin.
Of the four, Peru have perhaps the blankest canvas to work with. Sergio Markarian is set to leave his post as national team coach and a number of players are reaching an age at which international retirement is likely.
Peruvian newspaper El Comercio today published a list of potential candidates to replace Markarian. There is little coherence in playing style or coaching manner between the candidates mentioned, suggesting that the country’s football federation does not yet have a clear vision for the future of the national team.
Yet independent of coaching or infrastructure decisions, there is one thing the federation can do that would greatly increase Peru’s chances of qualifying for Russia 2018: move the national team’s home matches to Cusco, 3,399 metres (11,152 feet) above sea level.
Peru played their home qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup at the Estadio Nacional in the port city of Lima, the national team’s home since 1923. They have, over the years, occasionally played competitive matches in Cusco or in the Amazonian outpost of Iquitos, but they have never made either their permanent home.
When Markarian was appointed in 2010, he discarded suggestions that Peru might play their home matches at altitude, saying: “I think it weakens a player’s spirit to tell him we need to gain an advantage through a little trick like that.” Yet when other countries are benefiting from playing at altitude or in uninviting climatic conditions, why not?
In the 2014 qualifiers, Bolivia and Ecuador played their home matches at altitude (Bolivia in La Paz; Ecuador in Quito), while Colombia and Venezuela took advantage of hot and humid conditions (Colombia in Barranquilla; Venezuela in Puerto la Cruz) to weaken their opponents.
Bolivia, who were awful on their travels, took 10 points in La Paz; Ecuador were undefeated in Quito, taking 22 of their 25 point total at home; Colombia secured 17 points in Barranquilla and were undefeated at home under Jose Pekerman; and Venezuela defeated Argentina and Peru, drew with Ecuador and lost to Chile in the four matches they played in Puerto la Cruz.
In 2012 I conducted a study that compared home advantage in the Copa Libertadores to Europe’s Champions League. I took into account results over at five year period and established that home teams were 7.69% more likely to win and 5.38% less likely to lose in the Libertadores than in the Champions League.
While the effects of travel distance and intimidating home support clearly need to be factored in, the effect on opposing teams of the altitude of cities like La Paz, Mexico City and Quito or the stifling heat and humidity of Barranquilla or Barinas, is clearly a helping hand for home teams.
Certainly, some of the standard Champions League bets would not be so safe in the Copa Libertadores. Backing Real Madrid away to FC Copenhagen is a much safer proposition than betting on Atletico Mineiro to win away to the Strongest, for instance.
Peru did have a decent home record during the qualifiers, with four wins, two draws and two defeats – indeed, it was their terrible away form that did for their chances of qualifying – but six home victories, or indeed seven, as Ecuador managed in Quito, would certainly have kept them in contention for longer.
That is not to say that the Peru team of the 2014 qualifiers would have made the World Cup had they played their home matches in Cusco, but when other countries, some of them with better playing staff at their disposal, are using altitude or climatic conditions to their advantage, it seems daft for Peru not to follow their lead.
Move to Cusco, stick Paolo Guerrero up front and surround him with pacey support from the likes of Jefferson Farfan, Paolo Hurtado and Yordy Reyna. Allow Luis Advincula and Yoshimar Yotun freedom to drive forward from the full-back positions. Put teams under immediate, intense pressure, make them run, leave them gasping for breath. Make an away match against Peru a daunting prospect.
It would not solve the wider problems of Peruvian football, but could at least give the country’s football-loving populous some hope of reaching a first World Cup since 1982.