With just hours to go before the FIFA U-17 World Championship (kick-off Friday 16 September), hosts Peru are preparing to defy the odds. If carrying a nation's hopes at a time when the country is crying out for sporting success were not difficult enough, the team also have the weight of history against them. In the 20 years the tournament has been running, only three host nations have won their opening game - the same number to have made it past the first round. Ecuador, Egypt and Finland are the only host nations to have got off to a winning start at the FIFA U-17 World Championship. The case of Scotland, who held the 1989 edition, is also noteworthy. They only managed a draw in their opening game but went on to finish runners-up after losing the decider to Saudi Arabia on penalties. Aside from these teams, the hosts have not traditionally enjoyed the best of fortune at this level. Perhaps not surprisingly then, Peru's Argentine-born coach José Pavoni prefers not to dwell too much on historic trends. "If we paid too much attention to those statistics, then we wouldn't even show up for the tournament," he told FIFA.com from his base in Trujillo. His reticence is understandable when you consider that first up for his young charges are Ghana, the two-time world champions and perennial title candidates. "We'll be facing a team that are very physical, but that could work in our favour. They're very fast and dangerous on the bre! ak, but we have high expectations. My boys have assimilated all the physical, technical and tactical work we've been doing."
Pavoni is not the only person talking up the host nation's chances as the big day approaches. Teófilo Cubillas, one of Peruvian football's most iconic figures and member of FIFA's Technical Study Group, has already gone on record as saying: "The boys have no need to feel overawed by anyone. They are capable of getting results, even more so when you take into account the home support." Christian Ramos Garagay, captain of the home side, seems to have taken on board Cubillas's words: "We know we're up against a very strong opponent (in Ghana), but we're a more resilient side now." Anyone doubting the captain's words need only look at the fiercely contested 2-2 draw Peru played out with reigning African champions Gambia in last Wednesday's friendly in Lima.
Despite being top seeds in Group A, the hosts face the equally challenging Costa Rica and China in their second and third games. Pavoni, for his part, said that while people need to realise that "all 15 visiting sides would provide stiff opposition", the challenge posed by their three group opponents would be "completely different - right from the way they experience things to the way they play the game." The coach also spoke about the significance of the public support in Trujillo, a coastal city seemingly a world away from the grey skies of Lima. "Here you can really feel the atmosphere of the tournament, right from the organisation to the expectations of people on the street. Whether or not the boys are attuned to just what all this means, it's a bit too early to say. We'll just have to wait and see how they perform on the pitch," says the coach.
Come Friday, the time for talking will be over and Peru will embark on their first FIFA U-17 World Championship adventure. Far from being cowed, the young Incans are preparing for battle in the hope that the unstinting support of the coaching staff and their public will enable them to change the course of their country's sporting history. Speaking recently, the President of the Peruvian Football Federation, Manuel Burga, summed up the challenge and the opportunity that lay ahead: "It won't be an easy task, but we have to put our faith in the boys. After all, this side eliminated no less a team than Argentina in the qualifying tournament." Right now, Peru's destiny is firmly in their own hands, and as coach Pavoni put it so succinctly, "no one can stop us from dreaming".