Picture this: you in a full kit, a big No. 9 printed on the back of your jersey, the crowd chants your team’s name. I think many a football fan has dreamed, at least once in their life, that they were a professional football player. Yet most of us lack the muscles, the stamina, and the tactics to play at a professional level. Still there is a real chance that you and at least 19 other friends could form a team and be playing football next January. The only catch is that you would have to move to Peru and compete with another 20,000 teams for the slot.
This might all sound a little crazy, but Peru is a magical land where dreams come true and just for this purpose, there is the Copa Peru. Football first arrived on Peruvian shores much like it arrived in many other shores, on the feet British sailors. The game spread like wildfire from the beginning of the 1900s until the creation of the first professional and national league in 1966. Up until that point, local amateur leagues existed in many different parts of the country. In Lima, the clubs had been professionalized by 1950, yet this tournament did not include teams from outside the city.
This was not due to a lack of talent. Alianza Atlético, based in the north of the country, had won more local championships at this point than either one of Los Compadres in Alianza Lima and Universitario. Atlético Grau, another northern club, made up most of the national team squad from the 1961 Bolivarian Games. What made a nationwide tournament difficult, if not impossible, was the country’s underdevelopment and lack of infrastructure. Peruvians, even up to this day, feel that Lima absorbs most of the country’s resources and talent economically, socially, politically, and in sports.
With the creation of the Copa Libertadores in 1960, it was time to make the professional football more accessible to the rest country. In 1966, the professional tournament truly became a national tournament when four teams from outside Lima where invited to participate. Thus, the tournament acquired the name that most know it by today: the Torneo Descentralizado.
The question then became how to select new teams to promote every year. The most meritocratic way possible was by creating a national tournament using the existing local tournaments as a base from which the crème de la crème would naturally rise to the top and join the highest division of Peruvian football. That is how the Copa Peru, also known colloquially as the “Libertadores of the poor” or “macho football,” was born.
The smallest geographic unit in Peru is not a town or a city, but a district. They can be a neighbourhood inside of a city, like the Lima districts of La Molina or La Victoria, or a big expanse of land with multiple little towns in the Peruvian Andes. Each district has the right to organize a tournament which usually consist of six to 12 teams.
Each district champion and runner-up earn the right to compete in the provincial tournament which can consist of anywhere between two and 15 districts. Then each provincial champion and runner-up earn the right to play in the departmental championship. From there, each of the 25 departments (similar to regions or states) promotes the departmental champion and runner-up to the national tournament. The fifty clubs that are left then play a series of home-and-away direct-elimination games until only four teams are left. These four then travel to Lima for a final group stage or Finalísima where the champion is promoted to the first division tournament and the runner-up to the second division all in one calendar year. In other words, its as if the FA Cup gave direct promotion to the Premier League.
Distrital > Provincial > Departamental > National > Finalisima
So an example. Here is a map of the Lima province.
Lets use Deportivo Independiente Miraflores as an example. They play within the Lima province, which is the main city, but first they have to play within their own district, or “barrio.” After that, they move on to play against the other teams in the city and then the whole region. So the final could be a team from the Metropolitan part of Lima vs a team from Cañete, which as you could see is south of the city.
After that, they play in the national stage, which is teams from the entire country. Some of these trips are difficult to make and are done with limited resources, but they are made as everyone wants to compete. As for La Finalisima, the current format consists of the semifinalists going into a group stage. They play three games against each other in a neutral ground in Lima, with the final at the Estadio Nacional.
|Sport El Tablazo||3|
Peru San German
If this were the final table in the Copa Peru finalisima, then CNI would go up to Primera, Coronel Bolognesi up to Segunda and Sport el Tablazo and Peru San German would have to play in the Copa Peru again, whislt getting a bye in the first round.
Of course, it can work a bit differently in other regions, as some towns have districts that simply don’t have football leagues. These get a bye in the first round and go straight to the next. At least the provincial stage. Also, some teams that get far in the tournament also get a bye in the first round. If Coronel Bolognesi reaches the quarterfinals and lose there, they won’t have to play the Distrital stage the next year.
Most Peruvian clubs now in the Torneo Descentralizado either played or won the Copa Peru before arriving there. Some examples are Melgar, the 1971 Copa Perú champion, Real Garcilaso, the 2011 winners, or UTC in 1981 and 2012. The Copa Peru, thus, is technically the third division of Peruvian football with divisions four, five, six, and sometimes seven, as stages of the main tournament.
There has been much discussion among fans, clubs, the media, and the Peruvian FA on whether or not it is time to say goodbye to the Copa Peru system in favour of something less chaotic like other civilized countries. Only a handful of clubs have serious aspiration of becoming professional clubs. Most of the approximately 20,000 teams involved do it for the love of the game. You can probably Google some of the very “unique” club names in the tournament or footage of the most recent referee aggression, spontaneous match fight, or cow pitch invasion (yes, it’s very real). It also seems like most clubs that win the tournament either succeed at qualifying for an international tournament or are relegated and disappear off the face of the earth at the end of their first professional season.
No matter what, the most intricate soccer tournament on the face of the planet with all its twists and turns is still here and we are proud to host it in Peru.