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Remembering the legends of football – Teofilo Cubillas

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Meet Peru’s greatest ever player – Teofilo Cubillas.

Until this summer, Peru hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1982. Coincidentally, that is the last time Teofilo Cubillas was part of the national team. The Pele of Peru was 13 when he was discovered when his school team played an Alianza Lima youth team. He scored the only goal in a 7-1 loss and was invited to play for Alianza as a guest the next week. In that game, he scored all six goals in a 6-0 win, earning himself a permanent membership in the club. In 1966, he not only made his debut for Alianza as a 16-year-old, but he also led the Peruvian League in scoring.

Some time during that year is when he got his famous nickname (ESPN).

“Alianza was about to take a flight to play a friendly game when the flight attendant came by to take everyone’s drink order. “My teammate Perico Leon said, ‘Give him milk because he’s a nene [baby],'”
“After that I stayed with Nene.”

Nene stayed in Alianza until 1972 and broke onto the world scene during the 1970 World Cup, when he helped Peru advance to the quarter-finals. He scored in all of Peru’s four matches and won the tournament’s best young player award. Cubillas was so good that Pele himself named him as his successor.

The South American nation missed the 1974 World Cup, but won the 1975 Copa America for the second time in history and Nene was named player of the tournament.

Peru’s greatest ever player eventually moved to Europe, where he spent a season in Basel and three seasons in Porto before returning to his native land. The main reason was the reluctance of his European teams to release him for international tournaments, as Cubillas desperately wanted to represent his country.

“If I had the opportunity to be reborn, I would select football as my profession, Peru as my country and Alianza as my club.”

With Alianza, he won Peruvian League titles in 1977 and 1978 and inspired his national team to another World Cup berth. During the 1978 World Cup, Teofilo Cubillas scored five goals again, becoming the first player in WC history to achieve this feat, since matched only by Miroslav Klose and Thomas Muller.

He had vision, the ability to beat players one-on-one and scored goals with unseen grace. Free kicks were his specialty, but there was one other trait which always stood out.

“If you had to pick one word, it would be touch. It was that typical South American velvet touch. He exemplified that.” – Ray Hudson, former footballer and TV analyst for beIN Sports

Cubillas was part of the Peruvian World Cup squad for a third time in 1982. As a 32-year-old, he played in all three group games, but didn’t find the net. He kept playing until his late 30s for various clubs in the United States of America and settled in South Florida to provide better educational opportunities for his children.

In December 1987, tragedy struck his beloved Alianza Lima, as a plane carrying the team’s players crashed in an accident similar to Chapecoense’s in 2016. Cubillas returned from his Miami home to play for free for Alianza and even managed the club for a period in 1988.

Overall, he had an incredible career. Being compared to a Brazilian player was the highest epithet any footballer could receive at the time. He was not only put in the same sentence with the Brazilians, he was treated as one of them. He had a knack for goals and played with class and elegance rarely seen on a football pitch.

Peru has long been one of the least successful nations in South American football. The country’s clubs have never won the Copa Libertadores, and only one has lifted a Copa Sudamericana trophy (Cienciano in 2003). Yet, in a span of 12 years, Peru qualified for three World Cups and took home its second major trophy, the 1975 Copa America, all thanks to their best ever player – Teofilo “Nene” Cubillas.