Soccer, football, fútbol... whatever you call it, the “beautiful game” is a South American obsession. And while Peru is not a soccer powerhouse like Argentina or Brazil, the game remains the country’s national sport, unrivaled by any other.
The nation’s club sides, especially those in Lima, inspire fanatical support. The Peruvian national team, meanwhile, is fighting to overcome a lengthy slump.
Club Soccer in Peru
The Peruvian Primera División, officially known as the Torneo Descentralizado de Fútbol Profesional Peruano, is the top division of club soccer in Peru.
The league comprises 16 teams; the teams play each other twice (home and away, for 30 games each) between February and December. The two teams that finish in first and second place then play each other in a two-leg final play-off, with the eventual winner claiming the championship. The two teams that finish bottom of the league are relegated to the Segunda División (Second Division).
Peruvian club teams can also qualify for two continental club tournaments: the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana. Both competitions feature the top club teams from the various South American leagues (the Copa Libertadores also features teams from Mexico).
Top Soccer Teams in Peru
Since the first official league competition in 1912, two teams have dominated Peruvian club soccer: Alianza Lima and Universitario de Deportes. As of April 2016, Universitario has claimed the title 26 times with Alianza trailing slightly with 22 titles (combined, the two teams have won half of all the league titles). Sporting Cristal emerged as a major force in the 1950s; the club has since won the title on 17 occasions. All three soccer clubs -- Alianza, Universitario and Sporting Cristal -- are from Lima.
In something of an upset, the 2011 Torneo Descentralizado was won by Juan Aurich, a club from Chiclayo (a major city on the north coast of Peru). The team beat Alianza Lima in the title play-off, claiming its first ever championship victory. The following three years were won by Sporting Cristal, Universitario and again by Sporting Cristal, followed by an unexpected league win by FBC Melgar of Arequipa, becoming the club's second championship win in its 100-year history.
Major Soccer Club Rivalries in Peru
One Peruvian soccer rivalry stands out above all others: El Clásico Peruano. This Lima derby game is contested between Alianza and Universitario; it’s always tense, it’s always hard-fought and it rarely lacks drama (both on and off the field).
Like the London derbies of the English Premier League, matches between Lima-based clubs have a special atmosphere. Lima's Sporting Cristal have become natural rivals of both Alianza and Universitario.
Another top-flight rivalry, known as the Clásico del Sur (Southern Classic), features FBC Melgar (Arequipa) and Cienciano (Cusco).
The Peruvian National Soccer Team
The Peruvian national team was officially formed in the 1920s. The selection played in the first-ever World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 but failed to progress beyond the first stage. Despite this early knockout, the team remained strong throughout the 1930s and ended the decade by winning the 1939 South American Championship.
Peru reached its all-time peak in the 1970s. The selection reached the quarterfinal of the Mexico 1970 World Cup before winning the Copa America in 1975. Peru qualified for the 1978 World Cup but failed to progress through a tough second round group. The team of the 70s is still seen as Peru’s golden generation of players.
After qualifying for the 1982 World Cup in Spain (in which Peru came last in its first-round group), the national team began a period of decline. Since 1982, Peru has failed to qualify for a single World Cup competition.
The current squad is showing some signs of potential, but a lack of confidence, discipline and grass-roots investment in soccer at a national level continues to hinder the team’s progress. Qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil was a tough and ultimately disappointing battle, with the team failing to progress beyond the always-demanding South American (CONMEBOL) World Cup qualifying group.
If you'd like to see Peru play a live game, learn more about watching the Peruvian national soccer team.
Famous Peruvian Soccer Players
Teófilo Cubillas -- Generally regarded as Peru’s finest ever player, Cubillas was a technically gifted midfielder at the heart of the golden generation side of the 1970s. The International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) ranked Cubillas at 48 in its list of the 50 greatest soccer players of the century. He remains Peru’s leading goal scorer.
Nolberto Solano -- Solano is one of the most famous and popular sporting figures in Peru, having earned 95 caps for the national team before his retirement from international soccer in 2009. Solano spent much of his club career in England, making more than 200 appearances for Newcastle United in the Premier League (as well as stints with Aston Villa and West Ham). Now in his late 30s, Solano is currently playing for Hartlepool in the English League One.
Claudio Pizarro -- Pizarro has spent much of his club career in Germany, becoming the leading foreign scorer in German soccer history while playing for Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich. Despite his success abroad, he has struggled to reach his full potential while playing for the Peruvian national team (as of April 2016, he has scored 20 goals in 83 appearances).
Juan Manuel Vargas -- Nicknamed El Loco ("The Madman"), Vargas looked as though he'd become a driving force in the current Peruvian team. Playing anywhere along the left side of the field, Vargas impressed for Peru, but his recent form has dipped off significantly. He continues to build his reputation playing in Europe, with stints at Fiorentina, Genoa (loan) and currently Betis.
Paolo Guerrero -- The current pin-up boy of Peruvian soccer, Guerrero leads the attack for his national team while playing for Brazilian club side Flamengo.