Football is conflict. The entertainment emerges from the conflict — or, in cases of tight games with plenty at stake and little given away, the tension emerges from the conflict.
There was certainly more tension than entertainment in Monday’s World Cup playoff in which Australia booked their place in Qatar, overcoming Peru on penalties after a goalless draw.
Neutrals and Australia fans will have enjoyed the drama of the shootout, especially for the dancing antics of goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne, introduced by Australia solely for the penalties.
Peru fans have nothing to celebrate. Monday was a national holiday in the country. Tuesday will be a day of mourning. Over the past few years, the team have overachieved, reaching their first World Cup in 36 years and coming desperately close to a second.
But it is hard to see where Peru can go from here. Domestic Peruvian football is in an abject state with very few young players are coming through, and this elimination might well bring down the curtain on coach Ricardo Gareca’s excellent time in charge.
Going into Monday’s match, there was little prospect of a goalfest in Qatar; the heat and humidity, the importance of the occasion and the limitations of the two sides both pointed in the other direction.
Peru, however, were narrow favourites, an expectation they might not have enjoyed. They are not frequent scorers, managing just 19 goals in 18 rounds of World Cup qualification, and Australia set out to block them.
The Australian defensive weakness down the right was quickly apparent, as full-back Nate Atkinson picked up a yellow card after just 11 minutes. But Australia played far better than in last week’s 2-1 Asian playoff win against the United Arab Emirates. They were more compact in midfield, where Peru were unable to build a bridgehead from which to slip passes behind the defensive line.
With the left foot of Ajdin Hrustic and the crosses from the right of Martin Boyle, Australia shaded the first half. After the break, Peru tried hard to advance as a block, but the Australians dug deep.
In the last few minutes of normal time — just as in the game against the United Arab Emirates — Australia came on strong. Left-back Aziz Behich cut inside two defenders and hit a cross shot just wide. And substitute Awer Mabil pulled back a cross from the left to set up Hrustic, whose shot was well saved low to his left by Pedro Gallese.
But in extra time, Australia went into their shell, and Peru came closest to victory. It took Peru more than 100 minutes to get a shot on target, an easy save on substitute Edison Flores. Soon afterward, Flores came still closer, meeting a cross at the far post with a downward header. It came back off the post for a Gianluca Lapadula shot that was deflected clear to Pedro Aquino, who lobbed over one defender but then was unable to keep a high volley down. And so to penalties, where Peru looked on course to win.
Gallese saved Australia’s first kick from Boyle and was looking sharp as he got close to the second from Aaron Mooy. Redmayne, meanwhile, was a show apart. If the Peruvians kept their heads as he went through his whirling motions, they could surely catch the keeper off balance.
Redmayne did not have to make a save to keep Australia in the fight. Luis Advincula came up with a shot that was two inches away from being almost a perfect penalty. He struck hard to the goalkeeper’s right — but stress can cause tiny errors of calibration, and instead of nestling in the corner, his shot hit the inside of the post.
A fraction one way and it would have rebounded into the goal. A fraction the other and it would have gone in off Redayne’s back. Instead, it went through to safety, between the line and the ‘keeper, and the initiative passed to Australia.
Once the five designated kickers have taken their penalties, the chances of error are greatly increased. Peru’s sixth was taken by substitute striker Alex Valera, one of the very few younger players to have broken into the squad since Russia 2018. Valera had to score to keep Peru in the hunt. Redmayne sensed his moment and plunged right to block the shot.
Redmayne gets the headlines, and Australia will be back in Qatar to face France, Denmark and Tunisia. Peruvians, meanwhile, will see the symbolism in Valera’s miss.
A group of players came together and, under the guidance of an intelligent coach, managed, for a while, to add up to more than the sum of their parts. But in the absence of promising new parts, it might be a while before the Peruvian public can cheer on a team as competitive as the one that so nearly made it to Qatar.