Embroiled in controversy, times are tough for Peruvian soccer
FIFA banned Peru from international play because of a FPF president Manuel Burga
Peru hasn't made it to the World Cup since '82, and is unlikely to qualify for 2010
Peru lost the right to stage the South American U-20s Championships next January
Might the flipside of "crisis" be "opportunity" for Peruvian soccer -- a chance to regroup and recover the momentum of the 1960s and '70s?
An optimist may think so. A pessimist would be more inclined to believe that things are going to get worse before they get better -- if they ever do.
And a realist will be looking out for political deals and compromises that might call off the dreadful prospect of being suspended from international competition.
The row that has lead to Peru's suspension by FIFA has its roots in the issue of sovereignty. Who holds most sway over the Peruvian football association (FPF)? Is it the Peruvian state, or is it FIFA? The power of geography or the administrative force of the global game?
The Peruvian state, through its sports institute (IPD), demanded that the FPF bring its statutes in line with local law. When this didn't happen, it declared FPF president Manuel Burga and some of his team ineligible for a period of five years. Burga ignored the ban. He stood for re-election. It was a controversial process. The election took place a year later than scheduled (was this really an attempt to profit from the good performances of the Peru side in last year's World Under-17 Cup?). But Burga won. In the eyes of FIFA, he is the legitimate representative of Peruvian soccer.
The IPD sees it differently. It doesn't recognize Burga nor his team. Restrictions have been imposed on the FPF's use of bank accounts. And Peru lost the right to stage the South American Under-20 Championships next January. The stadiums belong to the IPD, which wouldn't cede them for use by the FPF, and so the tournament was recently switched to Venezuela.
This is a real blow for the Peruvian team. This is the same generation that did so well last year at the Under-17 level. In their quest to qualify for the World Youth Cup in Egypt next September, they were to be boosted by homefield advantage. Now they have to go to Venezuela -- if they're allowed to compete at all.
FIFA traditionally comes down very hard on what it sees as government interference in soccer associations. Without much interest in the rights or wrongs of the matter, FIFA usually supports the position of the sitting soccer authorities -- with the threat of suspension from all international competition if the government refuses to back off.
This is indeed a serious threat -- especially to the game at the elite level. If implemented, it would mean that Peru's national teams could not compete in January's Under-20 Championships or in the World Cup qualifiers, which resume at the end of March. No international matches for Peru's referees. It would also mean that Peru's clubs will be barred from the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League. This is a financial disaster, with grave consequences for the job security of many of the players.
I'm writing this a few hours before the South American Confederation (CONMEBOL) conducts the draw for the 2009 Libertadores. Three Peruvian teams would normally be involved. So far, only one of those places has been filled, by Lima giants Universitario. The other two places are still being disputed as the local championship moves into the closing stages.
It appears that these three places will be left blank for the time being. It had been speculated that CONMEBOL might invite three teams from other countries, using a historic ranking of results, to fill the places usually assigned to the Peruvians. Instead it now appears that these slots will be left open for the next four weeks, thus giving the authorities in Peru time to sort out the conflict. So the clock is ticking.
Public opinion in Peru appears to be solidly against the FPF. The majority would approve of a change in leadership -- hardly surprising given the current state of the country's soccer. At club level not since Sporting Cristal was narrowly beaten in the 1997 final has a Peruvian side produced an impressive campaign in the Libertadores. Indeed, in the last four years, none of the country's representatives has even made it out of the group phase into the competition's last 16.
At the international, level things are just as bad. Peru hasn't made it to the World Cup since 1982, and barring a sporting miracle, it won't be in South Africa 2010. With 10 of the 18 qualifying rounds gone, Peru is dead last in the South American standings. The FPF seemed to be searching for scapegoats when it suspended some senior players for alleged hijinks after celebrating a draw with Brazil.
No longer considered for selection are Claudio Pizarro (who still angrily proclaims his innocence) and fellow strikers Jefferson Farfán and Andrés Mendoza, plus senior center back Santiago Acasiete. Peru doesn't have the strength in depth to be able to leave out such talent, and it certainly appeared the FPF was more interested in playing the blame game than in providing a structure that might help the team. While the other South American sides were involved in warm-up friendlies in August and November, the FPF didn't organize any games for its own team.
But if public opinion is against Burga, FIFA is behind him. Now that time is ticking away, the role of the major clubs is vital. They are the ones with most to lose from a FIFA suspension. They're also the ones who invest in and produce the players for the national team at Under-17 and Under-20 level, who go on to form the backbone of the senior national squad.
Which way will they come down? Will fear of the FIFA suspension force them into line behind Burga? Or do they seize the chance to push for a structure that gives the professional clubs, rather than amateur leagues, more say in the running of the Peruvian game? Because if Burga has lost the support of the major clubs, then resignation would be the most honorable course of action. And then a new election, and a new FPF leadership, can point a way forward for Peruvian soccer.