Teofilo Cubillas – Part 1: The Rise Of El Nene

Name the best South American football players to grace a field and many will cite either a Brazilian (Pele, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Zico or Jairzinho) or an Argentinean (Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona or Mario Kempes). But if you were to ask who was the best South American player of the 1970s, the first name on the list would likely be a Peruvian – Teofilo Cubillas.


Born on March 8th 1949 in Puente Piedra, a northern district in Peru’s capital Lima, football would come quickly to Cubillas as a 15-year-old when playing for Huracan Boys in 1964 – a team from his district. Facing Alianza Lima in a youth game in 1964, Huracan Boys were trounced 7-1, with Cubillas scoring the sole consolation goal.


Despite the heavy defeat, the 15-year-old’s performance attracted the attention of scout Rafael ‘Cholo’ Castillo, who invited Cubillas to play with him. They would win the next match 6-0 – Cubillas scoring all six goals. It would not be the first Peruvian star Castillo would unearth in the coming decades.


Involved in their youth setup, Cubillas would help Alianza Lima’s youth team win the youth league for 1965 and 1966 respectively – top scorer in both years. That was enough for the 17-year-old Cubillas to be promoted to the first team. Debuting in the 1966-67 season, where the league ran from August to February, Cubillas would explode onto the scene, netting 19 goals to become the league’s top scorer as Alianza Lima finished 3rd.



Heads were turned at this now 18-year-old attacking midfielder who had made defenders in Peru’s top flight tremble at his talent. Second-season syndrome meant Cubillas could score just 9 goals in the following season in 1967 as Alianza finished 3rd again. 1968 would prove to be a fruitful season for Cubillas as he would again score 19 goals and Alianza again finish 3rd for the third time running.


Such lethality in front of goal would normally elicit a catchy-sounding nickname. Think El Tigre for Falcao, El Pistolero for Luis Suarez or O Furacao for Jairzinho. Cubillas’ nickname was El Nene (The Kid) – created by teammate Pedro Pablo Leon while on a flight to Ecuador due to Leon ordering beer for himself and milk for the young Cubillas with his boyish looks.


Nevertheless, Cubillas scoring 47 goals and creating 25 assists in the league over three years led to his first cap for Peru in 1968. As 1969 arrived, the spectre of World Cup qualification approached. The qualifying format was far different to the 10-team round-robin format CONMEBOL has today.


The final stage consisted of three groups with matches to be played throughout July and August – two groups of three teams each and one group of four teams. Each team in the group would play each other home and away –  with the top spot in each group sealing World Cup qualification. Peru were drawn in Group 1 with Bolivia and Argentina.


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Hopes were high for Peru that they could reach their first World Cup in 40 years. Managed by former Brazilian World Cup winner Didi, he knew Peruvian football well, managing Sporting Cristal in two spells from 1962-64 and 1967-69.


What also helped is Peru had a strong team – its squad largely consisting of the two big sides in Peru at the time, Sporting Cristal and Universitario, with players such as keeper Luis Rubiños, defenders Eloy Campos, skipper Hector Chumpitaz, winger Alberto “Jet” Gallardo and midfielder Roberto Challe. The two forwards, Pedro Pablo Leon and Oswaldo Ramirez, bucked the trend along with Cubillas – Leon playing with Cubillas at Alianza Lima and Ramirez with Sport Boys.


Peru’s World Cup hopes were given a boost when Bolivia utilised the high altitude of La Paz to beat Argentina 3-1 in their opening game on the 27th July. Peru would overcome Argentina six days later in Lima thanks to a single goal from Leon. Yet controversy would strike a week later on the 10th August when Peru travelled to La Paz to play Bolivia. With the score still 0-0 just six minutes into the second half, Peru seemed to have taken the initiative when Cubillas’ corner was not properly cleared and Challe would capitalise by scoring the opener.


That is when Yugoslav-born yet naturalised Venezuelan referee Sergio Chechelev entered the fray. Firstly, Cubillas was denied a clear penalty when impeded, but the worst was to come on 69 minutes. 


A corner for Bolivia resulted in them hitting the post, but as Peru’s goalkeeper Rubiños tried to gather the loose ball, he was bundled into the goal by Bolivia’s Raul Álvarez. Inexplicably, Chechelev awarded the goal, much to the shock of the Peruvians. Calamity would then strike on 79 minutes when a mix-up between Chumpitaz and Rubiños led to the former’s cushioned header towards the latter going past the keeper into the empty net.



Chechelev would then surpass himself even further by disallowing a Peru equaliser by Gallardo on 85 minutes for offside – despite two Bolivian defenders being in front of the striker and the linesman had not raised his flag. Chaos would ensue as a brawl erupted leading to the referee being accosted and led to two Peruvians (Ramon Mifflin and Nicolas Fuentes) being sent off alongside a Bolivian (Farias). At full time the Bolivian police were called in to stop a furious Peruvian side confronting the referee. There is a famous picture of midfielder Orlando de La Torre angrily staring down Chechelev that perfectly encapsulated Peru’s fury.


Despite the acrimony at La Paz, Peru would respond in the best way a week later in the reverse fixture in Lima, with Cubillas at the forefront. The midfielder would open the scoring on 36 minutes and Luis Cruzado would double the lead with a penalty six minutes later. Gallardo would make it 3-0 to complete the rout and send the 43,000 crowd into raptures.Hopes of a first World Cup for Peru since 1930 grew when Argentina edged Bolivia 1-0. It meant Peru needed a point in Argentina, at La Bombonera, to qualify. 


A tight game sprung into chaotic life during the last 20 minutes when Ramirez scored on 71 minutes only for Rafael Albrecht to equalise for the Argentines nine minutes later. Argentina would take the phrase “a team is most vulnerable after they have scored” to new extremes as Ramirez scored his second less than a minute after Albrecht’s goal to regain the lead. 


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Despite Alberto Rendo’s equaliser on 89 minutes, not to mention a disallowed goal for Argentina in injury time, it was not enough for Argentina as a 2-2 draw was enough to seal World Cup qualification for Peru. Consequently, it would be the only time Argentina failed to qualify for a World Cup.


Though Cubillas played a small role in Peru’s World Cup qualification, 1969 proving to be a lean year for him as injury curtailed him to 5 goals in 11 games for Alianza Lima who would finish a lowly 11th in the league, 1970 would be the breakout year when South America and the world learn the name Teofilo Cubillas.


By: Yousef Teclab / @TeclabYousef

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Paul Popper / Popperfoto