Copa America and World Cup glory: Peru legend Teofilo Cubillas saw it all
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- Head west on Atlantic Boulevard off I-95 and South Florida's suburban sprawl soon envelops you, much like the area's notorious humidity. If it's anonymity you want, you've come to the right place. The low-slung houses are well-kept but in many ways indistinguishable from one another. It is here that Teofilo "Nene" Cubillas, a legendary playmaker with Peru at three World Cups as well as several Copa Americas, is hiding in plain sight.
His camouflaged existence extends to his home's interior. In the living room there are crosses on the wall, a testament to his faith, as well as pictures of his wife, Betty, their three children and four grandchildren. No hint of the World Cup hero that he was. It's not until we move back to his study that his former profession becomes evident. There are jerseys from the Peru national team, his beloved club Alianza Lima, as well as the NASL's Fort Lauderdale Strikers. There are pictures of immense joy -- like the ones of him wearing an Alianza jersey flanked by his two sons, Cristiano and Coco -- and sadness as well. On the wall is a photo of the 1987 Alianza team whose players and coaches all died in a plane crash.
There are also trophies -- "I have more back in Peru," he explains -- including the Silver Boot award he received at the 1978 World Cup where his five goals were second to Argentina's Mario Kempes. "I had the Golden Boot until the last minute of the World Cup, then Kempes got another one," he says. "We had the same amount of goals, but he passed me by one."
Cubillas, 67, isn't at all haunted by that near miss. After all, this is a man who has everything, even as he lives simply. These days, Cubillas spends his time doing motivational speeches, including talks with university students back in Peru, delivering a message that seems at odds with the single-mindedness that it takes to become a professional soccer player.
"I always mention to them that being a great football player doesn't mean anything," he says. "You can do both. You can be a good student and a good soccer player."
Cubillas then repeats a line he first uttered before his testimonial with Alianza in 1986.
"If I had the opportunity to be reborn, I would select soccer as my profession, Peru as my country and Alianza as my club."
While Alianza may be where Cubillas' heart lies, he remains one of those rare players who belong to all of the Americas. After his playing days, he settled in South Florida to provide better educational opportunities for his children. While he often went back to Lima, he spread his knowledge to local kids by running clinics.
In some areas of South Florida, Cubillas isn't just remembered but revered. Over breakfast in Fort Lauderdale, former Strikers midfielder and current TV analyst Ray Hudson is reminiscing about the man dubbed "The Peruvian Pele." The two were teammates at a Strikers side that had a considerable Latin influence, featuring players such as Brazilian attacker Francisco Marinho, Chilean midfielder Eduardo Bonvallet and three-time South American Player of the Year Elias Figueroa.
Cubillas was the first of those to arrive in 1979, eschewing an offer from the New York Cosmos.
"Everybody loves Nene," Hudson says over fried eggs. "He had the best teeth of any footballer that any English lad had ever seen. They were like a Steinway piano."
Hudson marveled at Cubillas the player, one who could do it all. He had vision, the ability to beat players one-on-one and score, especially from free kicks. But one trait stands out. "If you had to pick one word, it would be touch. It was that typical South American velvet touch. He exemplified that."
He gets into a discussion of who was the better finisher, Cubillas or German great Gerd Muller, who also played for those Striker teams. Given Muller's legendary instincts around the goal, it seems he would get the nod, but Hudson opts for Cubillas.
"Gerd's finishes were always ugly. They would hit the post and go in, but he knew his geometry like isosceles in the area," Hudson says. "Nene's finishes would always be trombone-slide smooth. And it would be that wonderful coolness, when he was in on a defense or a goalkeeper, you were like this [celebrating] before the ball hit the back of the net.
"He'd always pass it into the goal. I can remember a few times he'd blast it -- he had the power because of his brilliant technique -- but more often than not it was with a real grace. It was almost like he was apologizing. 'I'm going to have to put this by you now.'"
Yet his favorite Cubillas memory isn't a goal but a dribbling move he put on then-New York Cosmos defender Andranik Eskandarian (father of former D.C. United forward Alecko Eskandarian). The game took place at the old Giants Stadium, and Cubillas was isolated one-on-one with Eskandarian. Hudson ran over to provide support.
"Nene did this trick that he used to do where he would take the ball with his right foot, lift it and in one motion take it the other way with the outside of his foot so the ball would roll over the top of his foot," Hudson says. "When he did this move, Eskandarian's knees basically turned to f------ water. I'll never forget it, the crowd in that corner of Giants Stadium, everybody rose up and it was like 'Whooaaaaaaa.'
"It was ingenious. It was like threading a needle with your foot. And it wasn't a sideshow. He did it for a real reason."
CUBILLAS' DEMEANOR AND TALENT can be traced to his upbringing in the town of Puente Piedra just outside of Lima. His parents both worked on a farm, with his father, Isaac, operating the farm's vehicles while his mother, Juana, worked as a cook. It was Juana who was the soccer fan, however. Isaac insisted that all of his seven children get an education and young Teofilo was no different.
"She would be sitting on the ground watching me and when I would score a goal, she was always smiling," Cubillas says. "When the school finished at the end of the year, when they would announce my name as a good student, then he was happy. I understood at that time, that if I wanted to see both happy, I have to do both well."
Cubillas' connection with Alianza was formed early. One of its players, Inocencio La Rosa, was from his hometown. Cubillas was 13 when he was discovered as his school team played an Alianza youth side. Cubillas' team lost 7-1, but he scored the only goal and was invited to play for Alianza as a guest by youth coach Rafael Castillo the following week. He scored all six goals in a 6-0 win and his bond with the club was complete. He made his debut at age 16, even leading the Peruvian League in scoring that year.
"I missed a lot of games because I was in school," he says. "But this was the reason for staying in the first team. After that, everything was successful for me."
It was around this time that Cubillas obtained his nickname. Alianza was about to take a flight to play a friendly game when the flight attendant came by to take everyone's drink order. "My teammate Perico Leon said, 'Give him milk because he's a nene [baby],'" Cubillas says. "After that I stayed with Nene."
IT WAS WITH PERU that Cubillas really made a name for himself. He scored five goals at the 1970 World Cup; combined with his exploits in 1978, he became the first player to twice score that many in a single tournament, and all of this took place during what was a golden age for Peruvian football.
Peru has long been one of the least successful nations in South American soccer. The country's clubs have never won the Copa Libertadores, and only one (Cienciano in 2003) has prevailed in the Copa Sudamericana. But in a 12-year span, Peru qualified for three World Cups and took home its second major trophy, the 1975 Copa America.
"[Peru's] style used to be like Brazil," Cubillas says. "Why? Because we used to have many coaches from Brazil. When we went to the World Cup in Mexico, we had Waldyr Pereira, 'Didi.' Didi was coach of club teams and the national team in Peru. He used to give all his experience because Waldyr used to be a very skillful player in the free kick. I learned how to take free kicks from him. He was my teacher.
"We copied that style. Many people say the best game was the  World Cup game between Brazil and Peru. It was a great game. They beat us 4-2. They had Pele, Tostao, Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto. Great team. That team could play without a goalie. If they concede five goals, they score 10."
It was after that tournament that Pele anointed Cubillas his successor, and he lived up to that billing at the Copa America five years later. That edition of the Copa was different from the modern-day version in that there was no host country. Peru prevailed in a three-team group consisting of Chile and Bolivia, setting up a semifinal showdown with mighty Brazil. In the first leg in the Estadio Mineirão in Belo Horizonte, a Cubillas free kick broke a 1-1 tie on the way to a 3-1 win. Yet Peru couldn't take advantage and lost the return leg at home 2-0.
"Everyone was expecting us to be the winner at home," Cubillas says. "Too much confidence."
In this day and age, Peru would have progressed on away goals, but the rules in 1975 stated that the drawing of lots would determine who would play Colombia in the final. It just so happened that the president of CONMEBOL at the time, Teofilo Salinas, was from Peru. With representatives from both countries present, he instructed his daughter, Veronica, to make the draw. For Peruvians she chose well, picking a ball containing a piece of paper with Peru's name on it. Legend has it that the ball had been refrigerated so that Veronica could make the "right" choice. Regardless, Peru advanced.
"I'll never forget her name," Cubillas says, but that was by no means the end of the drama. He was playing for Portuguese side Porto at the time, and manager Branko Stankovic refused to release him for the final. When Peru and Colombia split the two legs -- Colombia prevailed at home 1-0, while Peru claimed a 2-0 victory in Lima -- the championship was decided at a neutral venue in Caracas, Venezuela. Cubillas tried again.
"When I asked my coach in Porto to go, the coach said, 'We have a game Sunday; if we win the game, you go. If you lose the game, sorry,'" he recalls. "We played the game and we lose. I was after the game, asking the coach, the president. They said, 'Nene, I told you before, if you win, we let you go. If we lose, forget it. This is my answer.'"
So Cubillas flew to Caracas, on his own dime, hoping his presence would change Porto's mind.
"When I arrived there, the president from the Peru delegation told me, 'Nene, thank you for what you did, but you can't play. Porto didn't give the permission. We need authorization from the club so you can play.' I started calling again to the people from Porto. "Finally they said, 'We are going to give the authorization but when you come back, you have to accept what we decide.' I said 'OK.'"
Peru won the replay 1-0 on a goal by Hugo Sotil, another standout player who had struggled to gain his release, in his case from Barcelona. Cubillas was named player of the tournament.
CUBILLAS RECALLS THAT ALL was ultimately forgiven when he returned to Porto. The club announced sanctions, but they weren't enforced. The struggles to get released for international tournaments eventually led both Cubillas and Sotil to return to Peru to play with Alianza. Alianza won the Peruvian title 1977 and 1978, and Peru qualified once again for the World Cup.
Peru's involvement in that 1978 tournament is remembered for the team's massive 3-1 upset of Scotland -- and the free kick Cubillas hit in that match -- as well as the way the team capitulated in a 6-0 thrashing by eventual champions Argentina, who needed to win by four goals to reach the final. There were allegations that Peru threw the match but when this is mentioned, Cubillas shakes his head no.
"Argentina was a machine," he says. "They come, the play, they never stop. All I can say is you have to be there. A lot of people say many different things. For me, it was just a game. We lose and I have to accept it."
Peru qualified again in 1982 but haven't done so since despite producing players like Paolo Guerrero, Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfan. There have been some near misses, mostly notably in 1986 and 1998, but they haven't come close. A pair of third-place finishes at the Copa America in 2011 and 2015 haven't been sustained in World Cup qualifying either. So what's been the difference?
"We didn't have just one or two in each position," he says. "We had four or five players in each position. For the coach it was very difficult to make the final decision, who will be in the [squad]. Many times, great players stayed out. But today it's completely different. You have only one good player in each position. For the coach it's easy to make a team because the players who are playing in other countries always have to be the starter because for some reason, [the level of football in Peru] isn't the best. But we are trying to bring it back, those memories."
Until then, those recollections of Cubillas, his cohorts and their exploits will have to do.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.