Watching a goalkeeper star for Peru to edge them towards a place at the World Cup, it was hard not to think of Ramón Quiroga. This is the story of El Loco…
This week, in Lima, we could well witness a landmark moment in the history of Peruvian football.
A generation has passed since the South American nation reached the World Cup. Since CONMEBOL qualification took the form of a nine or 10-team group in 1998 they have only once finished higher than seventh.
However, victory over Colombia at the national stadium will see Ricardo Gareca’s team guarantee their place in Russia next summer.
That their fate remains in their hands is in no small part down to a hard-fought goalless draw against Gareca’s home nation Argentina at La Bombonera, with goalkeeper Pedro Gallese standing firm in the face of Lionel Messi, Ángel di María and co.
For some, the combination of a virtuoso goalkeeper and a meaningful game in Argentina will have brought to mind another man who – like the current coach – has a strong Argentinian connection: 1978 World Cup goalkeeper Ramón Quiroga.
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It takes a certain type of footballer to earn the nickname El Loco.
The moniker has been given to Martín Palermo, the Argentinian striker who missed three penalties in one match and somehow didn’t retire on the spot out of shame.
It also went the way of Sebastián Abreu, a man who, given the opportunity to send Uruguay to their first World Cup semi-final for the first time in 40 years after coming on as a substitute, decided to do this.
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However, the nickname is easier to maintain as an attacking player. You just have to do one or two eccentric things on the big stage and it sticks.
And besides, a bit of eccentricity in a forward is a good thing, a lot of the time.
If you’re managed by someone known as El Loco, or ‘the crazy man’ – someone like Marcelo Bielsa, for example – you know you’re getting someone capable of surprising superior opponents with an approach which is the opposite of by-the-book.
Having a goalkeeper called El Loco, however, feels less encouraging on paper.
If Peru make it to Russia, and if they are drawn in the right group, they could find themselves playing their first game of the tournament on the 40th anniversary of the moment for which the entire world remembers Quiroga.
You see, when you select a goalkeeper known for his extravagance and unpredictability, you’ll get some impossible saves and interceptions from time to time, as shown by the 50 stops racked up by Quiroga in six World Cup games in 1978.
You’ll also get things like this.
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Peru had topped their group in 1978, avoiding defeat against Iran, 1974 finalists the Netherlands, or self-proclaimed pre-tournament favourites Scotland.
With the likes of Teófilo Cubillas in such fine form, even the prospect of a tough second group stage against Brazil, Poland and hosts Argentina didn’t seem all that daunting. It’s all about momentum, right?
Well, it was certainly all about momentum when Quiroga flew through Poland’s Grzegorz Lato, wiping him out IN THE POLISH HALF OF THE PITCH.
Okay, first, a bit of preamble.
Earlier in the game, Peru’s defence presumably trusted in their Argentina-born stopper enough to ignore their actual responsibilities, leaving Quiroga to pull off an important interception a good 8-10 yards outside his area.
In fairness, the nonchalant reaction – calmly taking a couple of extra touches before relinquishing the ball – suggests this was something he had done successfully plenty of times before.
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As the game progressed, though, Peru found themselves chasing the point they needed to stay alive in the competition.
Naturally, that meant throwing everyone forward in the closing stages, so when an attack broke down and Lato was set free, the goalkeeper knew just what he had to do.
Again, the reaction – standing, hands behind his back like a schoolboy who has just been caught smoking behind the bike sheds – suggests this was also not a first for Quiroga.
Sure, it might not have worked on that particular occasion (unless you consider a yellow card rather than a red to be evidence of it ‘working’), but the challenge assault on Lato actually does demonstrate some of the qualities needed from a top-level goalkeeper.
Let’s break it down: he spots the danger early and recognises the quickest way possible to narrow the angle, bisecting Lato’s run with his own so he only needs to worry about keeping pace with his opponent over a short distance rather than over the course of a 60-yard sprint.
He also reaches his desired position quickly enough that, when the challenge is made, he has a reasonable case for there being defensive cover behind him. By doing so, he strengthens his argument for the card only being yellow – well played, Ramón.
And finally, after recognising the ball is beyond his reach, he makes another split-second calculation. With a minute remaining, conceding a second goal will see his country eliminated for sure, while conceding a free-kick on the halfway line (even if he’s sent off as a result) will keep the dream alive. With a 40/60 chance of stopping Lato by winning the ball legitimately versus a 90/10 chance of stopping him like this, he chooses the path of least resistance. That kind of quick-thinking is hard to find.
Sure, Peru couldn’t find that crucial goal in the end, and they went on to ship six to Argentina in their final game, but that’s not the point.
This was a man applying the expected goals model long before it became the norm in football. Quiroga wasn’t just assaulting an opponent, he was actually doing speed-maths while running – how many others can do that?
In the decades since that game, the sweeper-keeper ideals popularised by Quiroga have become commonplace, moving beyond comedy football compilations and legitimately being required of any keeper who wants to fit into a certain tactical system.
It’s the style which saw Manuel Neuer become such a crucial component of Bayern Munich’s and Germany’s teams, even if it arrived via a false start or two at Schalke, and why Manchester City’s defensive players have seemed more confident with Ederson behind them than with Claudio Bravo or Willy Caballero.
As we prepare for a World Cup with plenty of goalkeepers from the Ramón Quiroga school, surely it would only be fitting for Peru to be there with them.
By Tom Victor
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