The Old Colonial Cricket Club That Sparked Peru’s Football Fever

On a foggy Sunday afternoon in Lima in 1892, eight Englishmen limbered up on one side of a halfway line. On the other stood four of their countrymen, three Peruvians and a Frenchman.

Messrs Larrañaga, Grau and Solís were firmly in the minority against the Watsons, Williams, and Rollastons of Blighty that dominated the pitch. Even the leather ball provided no home advantage: it had to be sourced from Chile.

So went Peru’s first recorded football match between Lima Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club and Unión Cricket, an eight-a-side contest chronicled in two now defunct newspapers – and the result unknown.

The word ‘football’ may have been inauspiciously absent from both team names, yet this pastime brought by Britons lured to Peru by its nitrates and nascent railways, was steadily gaining traction.

Today’s match between England and Peru at Wembley will be their first meeting in half a century, and only the third in the sides’ history.

The countries’ footballing DNA is far greater intertwined than known however.

The English coastal community both founded the Lima Cricket Club in 1859, South America’s first sports club, and gifted in 1921 the hallowed turf on which Peru’s Wembley, it’s 40,000-seater Estadio Nacional, now sits.

Lima's Estadio Nacional (National Stadium). Now seating 40,000 fans, the plot was given as a gesture for Peru's centenary of independence in 1921
Lima’s Estadio Nacional (National Stadium). Now seating 40,000 fans, the plot was given as a gesture by the English community for Peru’s centenary of independence in 1921

Tea and Pavillions

“Peru and Britain have all kind of historical links that carry through to the present day,” says the UK’s ambassador to Peru, James Dauris. “And a love of football is certainly one of them.”

Arriving from the Old World as early as the start of the 19th century, English immigrants couldn’t resist the trappings of home for long.

They founded a “trade salon” (salón de comercio) in 1845, which became the Lima Cricket Club on moving to its new lodgings in Santa Sofía in Lima’s centre, 14 years later.

There the elite played tennis, field hockey, cricket, and rode horses. Fine turf was sent 7,000 miles from home to seed the pitch, and a pavilion was erected that served tea and luncheons for its members.

equipo 1912
Lima Cricket and Football Club’s championship winning side in 1912. / LCFC archives

At the time, the English community was 1,400 strong.

“In the 1850s as much English as Spanish was spoken in Callao,” wrote historian Brenda Harriman about Peru’s chief seaport city seven miles from the capital. By 1876 it had swelled to 2,400. An Anglican church, a British cultural institute and a cemetery funded by the Crown of King George IV sprung up.

Admiring the new-fangled sports played by the English, local men formed Unión Cricket in the neighbouring port of Callao in 1893, and played their first football matches a year later.

A Lima-Callao rivalry quickly developed, in what would be a harbinger of England and Peru’s meetings to come.

Matches at first were irregular, though began to coincide with Peru’s July celebrations of independence from almost three centuries of Spanish rule. A cup was later given by the local authority to the winners of this Limeño-Chalaco derby.

Becoming English

“In order to be modern, we had to become more English and leave behind what remained of the Spanish,” wrote Peruvian journalist Luis Carlos in El Dominical in 2010.

“The promise of modernity arrived in the form of new railways, the building of factories, industrialisation of guano (bird droppings containing nitrates) and the bulldozing of the Spanish colonial walls that used to surround Lima.”

The games became spectacles fiercely competed by both sides and drew crowds as great as 800 in some cases.

Lima Cricket and Football Club on a sunny day at its current site in Magdalena del Mar, where it has been since 1938 / LCFC archives

Unión Cricket chalked its first victory in 1899, though subsequent games often resulted in defeat or draws.

In 1909 Unión Cricket routed the foreign adversaries.

“There’s nothing more gratifying than showing unequivocally to have learned the gentlemanly game of football on a day of national celebration,” the broadsheet El Comercio reported.

The matches drummed up national pride against the prim architects of the game in Peru, though in spite of the competitive streak, sportmanship and fair play were revered. Shouts of “Long live Peru and Long Live England” rang out from the opposing teams after matches, as documented in archives that were accessed for this article.

Sailor squads

Peru’s football development was not only nurtured by competition with colonial residents however.

Regular stops from ships at Callao provided ready-made squads of seamen to duel the locals. In between loading and unloading cargo, teams tested their mettle.

The first recorded ship was the British Leander in 1895. Four years later a team made up of Lima Cricket and Unión Cricket players played against the British warship Amphion, losing 6-0 to the visitors.

By the 1910s, Peru’s industrialisation was in full swing. With a growing middle and working class, attention turned away from the  sports clubs with their manicured lawns to bands of workers. Indeed Unión Cricket disappeared in 1913. The Panama Canal diminished Callao’s importance and its bustling cosmopolitan character waned.

Other coastal teams with working class roots formed such as Ciclista Lima Association in 1896, then Alianza Lima in 1901 which remains one of its top clubs today. Football spread to country’s remote regions with Cienciano in the Cusco region of the Andes forming in 1901, and Arequipa’s Sport Victoria del Huacyo in 1904, for example.

By the time Peru’s first league was started in 1912, with the renamed Lima Cricket and Football Club its victors, the English community was a third of its peak.

The pitches however were seeded; the legacy set in motion.

Its football federation formed in 1922 and its league became professional four years later. The ensuing 1930s saw La Blanquirroja (white and reds) appear at the World Cup Finals in Uruguay 1930, and the 1940s and 1970s were notable for the talent of the squad, with Peru reaching the quarter finals in 1970 and 1978.

The Peruvian national team at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico which went out to Brazil, the eventual champions, in the quarter finals / Kevjonesin

Equals of the Cape Verde Islands

Today the return of the ‘golden age’ of the 1970s is proving elusive. Peru lags in mediocrity and is ranked in joint 42nd place with the Cape Verde Islands, according to FIFA.

It hasn’t featured at a World Cup since 1982, and came a lowly seventh in its qualifying group for Brazil 2014.

Yet football continues to enrapture the country and its tabloid press, where its first XI continue to sustain reams of column inches of about a dozen daily sports papers.

The press too lives vicariously though a handful of starlets that have made it to the European leagues such as Claudio Pizarro of Bayern Munich, Jefferson Farfán of Schalke ‘04, or Juan Manuel Vargas of Fiorentina.

None of the above will feature today, either injured or being rested by new Uruguayan coach Pablo Bengoechea.

A whiff of empire

Lima Cricket and Football club may no longer field elevens in the top flight, though it retains a whiff of imperial prestige.

Applications to join it must be expressly addressed to the “Hon. Secretary”, though all those pinned up on its reception noticeboard shirked the faux formalities, writing in Spanish.

A yearly membership costs 26,000 nuevos soles (£5,630), or 125 percent of the average salary.

“Without a doubt we are responsible for the spread of football in Peru”, says a document of the club’s official history.

It’s a fair point. Lima Cricket and Football Club mothered Peruvian fútbol through its birth pangs.

Though the lack of modesty in that statement reinforces the colonials can only be long gone.

Peruvian football really has come full circle.


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