Copa Sudamericana Final: River Plate vs Cienciano
Cienciano give ancient Inca capital modern glory
By Monica Vargas
LIMA, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Lying at the head of the Sacred Valley of the Incas at more than 3,000 metres above sea level in the Peruvian Andes is the ancient city of Cusco.
Once the Inca capital, the city -- which is also the gateway to the Machu Picchu citadel -- nowadays pulls in thousands of tourists a year with its pre-Columbian ruins, colonial churches, monasteries and convents.
The city has countless attractions -- but football has never been one of them.
Although local team Cienciano were founded 102 years ago, Cusco has long been a footballing backwater in a country which itself has drifted away from the sport's mainstream.
Cienciano have never won the Peruvian championship and have always been the poor relations of the Lima trio Sporting Cristal, Alianza Lima and Universitario, who in turn are considered lightweights by South American standards.
The modest Inca Garcilasco de la Vega stadium has never hosted a full international match and its unkempt pitch sometimes looks as if it has not been cut since the Incas were around.
This year, however, Cienciano have become the sensation of the Copa Sudamericana, the nearest thing in South America to the UEFA Cup.
After beating Colombia's Atletico Nacional 1-0 in the second leg of their semi-final last week, the "Red Fury" completed a 3-1 aggregate win and will face Argentina's River Plate in a two-leg final which starts in Buenos Aires on Wednesday.
Cienciano's unexpected success has brought solace to Peruvian football fans deprived of the national championship which was abandoned last month after the players went on strike to protest about unpaid wages.
Cienciano's success is also an oasis in a desert of Peruvian footballing failures.
Peru last qualified for a World Cup in 1982 while Sporting Cristal's appearance in the 1997 final of the Libertadores Cup broke a long string of failures in the South American equivalent of the Champions League.
Their sudden success has even helped to restore faith in the national team with Peruvians firmly believing they can qualify for the 2006 World Cup.
Under Brazilian Paulo Autuori, Peru have made a reasonable start to their qualifying campaign, beating Paraguay 4-1 at home and holding world champions Brazil to a 1-1 draw.
Cienciano, one of Peru's oldest clubs, have had some good seasons recently, reaching the Peruvian championship final in 2001 and the last 16 of the Libertadores in 2002.
The turning point came when they beat Brazilian champions Santos 3-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals of this year's Sudamericana.
They followed that up by winning 2-1 away to Atletico Nacional in their semi-final first leg, silencing critics who said the team could win only at home where they have the advantage of playing at high altitude.
"Playing at altitude helps us but if we didn't have a good team that wore out our rivals, that made them run, that pressured them, that played with rhythm, it wouldn't be any use to us," coach Freddy Ternero told Reuters.
But the club say they also have the heavens on their side, thanks to Cusco's patron, Lord of the Earthquakes, who protects the Inca city from falling victim to seismic shifts.
The team ask their patron for victory every time they play and the players wrap their team flag around the Lord's statue in Cusco's cathedral.
The team's fanatical supporters, who see Cienciano as the "Father of Peruvian Football"," are also a source of great support and celebrate every victory by parading through Cusco's imposing central square.
Paradoxically, Cienciano have also been helped by the financial crisis which has plagued the traditional teams such as Universitario.
Simply by paying wages on time, they have been able to entice experienced players such as striker German Carty and midfielder Paulo Maldonado from Lima clubs.
"Those players want to achieve great things," said Ternero. "It's been so long since Peruvian football has won something important and for them to have come this far is one of the biggest things in their career."
But Cienciano, whose name comes from the National College of Science, are not immune from the crisis and only just managed to pay players' salaries last year.
"We represent an ancient city known for Machu Picchu but now people will know Cusco also because of Cienciano," said the club's president Juvenal Silva.