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Teófilo Cubillas: Peru's Very Own Pelé

In the midst of a Peruvian golden age, one player stood out above the rest. A player so talented, the great Pelé declared him the heir apparent to his throne. Teófilo Cubillas announced himself on the global stage at the 1970 World Cup, and over the next 19 years, his star would shine bright even in the face of tragedy.

The Kid

Cubillas made his debut for hometown club Alianza Lima aged just 16, and his teammates fittingly nicknamed him El Nene (The Kid) because of his youthful looks and tender age. His World Cup bow occurred at the famous Mexico ’70 tournament, and seemingly overnight, he became a worldwide superstar.

With Peru entering the showpiece event after a 40-year World Cup absence, expectations were predictably low. Things took a sudden turn for the worse when a deadly earthquake hit the nation mere days before La Blanquirroja was slated to play. Unsurprisingly and understandably, Peru looked desolate and fell behind in their first group stage match, but feeling obligated to bring a sense of joy to its home country, the team clawed its way back and won both remaining matches, qualifying for the knockouts.

Cubillas dazzled with his skill and unconventional habit of controlling the ball with the outside of his foot; the 21-year-old scored four goals in the group stage. Unfortunately for the Peruvians, they faced eventual winners Brazil in the quarterfinals. Despite its best efforts—and another goal from El Nene—Peru exited as the tournament darling, having impressed with its free-flowing football.

Peru's Main Man

After failing to qualify for the 1974 edition, Peru made up for it at the 1975 Copa América. With Cubillas firmly established as the side’s crown jewel by now, La Blanquirroja went on to conquer South America, winning only the second Copa in the nation’s history with a win over Colombia.

Three years later, at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, Cubillas would once again showcase his immense talent. Just like eight years prior, El Nene scored five goals at the tournament, including one of the most iconic free kicks of all time, as Peru stormed through the first group stage. The team's momentum came to a sudden halt, however, during the second phase, and three losses saw Peru knocked out.

The Greatest Ever

In 1987, aged 38, Cubillas returned to his boyhood team for a fourth stint after its squad had tragically perished in the Alianza Lima air disaster. Two years later, he retired as Peru’s greatest ever player and record goal scorer—a record that stood for more than three decades.

 

Illustration by @sam.nahrub.

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