Soccer-‘El Bambino’ a new hero as Peru charge into World Cup playoff

World Cup - South American Qualifiers - Peru v Paraguay
Soccer Football - World Cup - South American Qualifiers - Peru v Paraguay - Estadio Nacional, Lima, Peru - March 29, 2022 Peru's Gianluca Lapadula celebrates scoring their first goal REUTERS/Sebastian Castaneda

March 30, 2022

LIMA (Reuters) – Peru got the win they needed to guarantee a World Cup playoff spot on Tuesday and Gianluca Lapadula, the man who sent them on their way, has been embraced as the country’s new hero.

The Andean side needed to beat Paraguay to make sure of the playoff spot and 32-year-old striker Lapadula’s early goal settled their nerves before Yoshimar Yotun scored a second.

Lapadula, who also saw headers hit the woodwork in each half, received a standing ovation as he left the field.

Peru have a tradition of producing exceptional forwards, such as Teofilo Cubillas and Paolo Guerrero, who was expected to lead them in this campaign but a series of setbacks limited the 38-year-old to five appearances in 18 qualifiers.

Coach Ricardo Gareca was forced to find a replacement for the talismanic striker who scored 39 goals for the national side and he hit on Lapadula, a journeyman striker who has bounced around the Italian leagues for more than a decade.

Born in Turin to an Italian father and Peruvian mother, Lapadula had been called up by Italy but did not appear in a competitive match and so was free to play for Peru.

Gareca gave the Benevento player a debut in November 2020 at age 30 and he has not let him down.

Since then, “El Bambino” has stepped in to fill the Guerrero void, scoring seven goals in 20 games.

A smart finisher whose lack of pace is offset by his constant movement and nose for goal, Lapadula scored four times as Peru finished third at last year’s Copa America.

(Writing by Andrew Downie in London; additional reporting by Marco Aquino in Lima; Editing by Peter Rutherford)