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Peru built on Gareca's personal touch

Peru
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Peru's World Cup return will cap Jefferson Farfan's remarkable comeback

Less than two years ago, Jefferson Farfan's career seemed to be finished. The Peru international left the United Arab Emirates in October 2016, having played just 12 matches for Al Jazira during extremely unhappy spell that was interrupted by numerous injuries.

He hadn't featured for the national team for a year at the time, and experienced problems finding a new club at the age of 32. Farfan was forced to train alone for three long months, trying to keep fit and waiting for an unlikely offer.

If anyone told him that he is about to become a star in Russia in more ways than one, he would probably not have believed. And yet, in an incredible twist of fate, that is exactly what happened. Farfan is now the darling of Lokomotiv Moscow fans after playing a crucial part in leading the club to the first championship title since 2004. Not surprisingly, his contract has recently been extended until 2020.

In addition, he made an emotional comeback to the national squad and helped Peru to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1982.

Making history at all fronts, Farfan is flourishing.

The unusual adventure started in January 2017, when Erik Stoffelshaus was hired as the new sporting director at Lokomotiv. The German specialist spent eight years of his career at Schalke, where Farfan was a huge favourite with Gelsenkirchen faithful between 2008 and 2015. Constant injuries eventually limited the Peruvian's contribution to the Bundesliga in his latter seasons, but his talent and character were well known to Stoffelshaus. Signing Farfan as a free agent was a no-brainer for him.

Stoffelshaus brought Farfan to Moscow just a few days after starting his work, even though key figures at the club were opposed to the move, most notably Lokomotiv Moscow coach Yuri Semin.

"I have absolutely no doubts about Farfan. He is a magnificent and unique footballer, and Schalke supporters adored him," Stoffelshaus said at the time.

"His mentality is incredible, and he always wants to win. A team needs players like him."

Semin didn't like the idea of signing an ageing injury-prone South American who hadn't played regularly for two years. Apparently, the veteran coach didn't even know about Farfan beforehand, because he frequently called him "Forlan" during training sessions and news conferences.

Farfan, who arrived to Russia in the middle of the winter and was stunned by cold temperatures, wasn't expecting to stay for long. He was unfit anyway, and only made his debut in April. And yet, there were teammates who immediately noticed his potential.

"Everyone knew that Semin didn't want Farfan in the team, and that was a problem," Lokomotiv captain Igor Denisov recalled.

"I had numerous conversations with the president Ilya Gerkus and told him that Jefferson must find mutual language with the coach, because he could be of great value to Lokomotiv.

"I've always said that he is a top player. You can see that by his first touch, by his footwork, by the way he trains."

Denisov was most definitely right, but Semin deserves huge credit for changing his mind. The 71-year-old was flexible enough to evaluate the player signed against his will objectively, and was richly rewarded.

In the very beginning of the 2017-18 season, Brazilian forward Ari tore his knee ligaments and Lokomotiv were left without a decent centre-forward in their squad. Farfan was initially considered a winger, but Semin was forced to use him in a central role -- and the switch worked out brilliantly.

Without the blistering pace that made Farfan one of the brightest stars in Eredivisie in the previous decade, the Peruvian was less effective on the flank, but his experience, vision and tactical awareness enabled him to find his feet as a central striker and become one of the Russian league's top stars.

It was evident in July when Farfan scored with a rare header in the 3-1 win at CSKA Moscow. Lokomotiv led the table early on, but nobody really took them seriously until the most important game of the season in October. The country was shocked when the Red and Greens thrashed heavy favourites Zenit 3-0 in St Petersburg. Farfan was the star of the show that day, scoring twice and providing a superb assist to Aleksey Miranchuk.

"He is out of this world," Denisov raved.

Semin agreed wholeheartedly: "Jefferson understands our demands and is ready to play in every position. He said that I can put him in goal if needed.

"That's an approach I like. He is a true professional who thinks about the team."

Following the triumph at Zenit, Farfan had become truly unstoppable and even an insane travelling schedule couldn't derail him. In November, he flew to Wellington and then to Lima to take part in a couple of World Cup playoff matches against New Zealand, and duly scored his first goal for Peru since 2015.

He then returned to Moscow, scored for Lokomotiv against Copenhagen in Europa League, before flying nine hours in each direction to Khabarovsk, on the Korean border, for a regular league fixture. Amazingly, the Peruvian scored there as well in freezing conditions on a disastrous pitch.

"He is a very tough guy who never gives up," Semin said.

Farfan netted 14 goals in all competitions on the way to Lokomotiv Moscow's sensational title -- his first after a decade, as he won four titles in Holland with PSV Eindhoven between 2005 and 2008.

Next season, he returns to the Champions League for the first time since 2014, but this month is going to be the most emotional in his life.

The historic World Cup experience awaits Peru, and Jefferson is the squad's spiritual leader, alongside his good friend Paolo Guerrero.

He will be able to tell his teammates everything about Russia, and getting nicknamed "Forlan" won't do him any harm either.

Farfan took Semin's mistakes quite humorously, and the fact that the real Diego Forlan won the Golden Ball at the 2010 World Cup was definitely on his mind.

Could the Peruvian possibly come close to the Uruguayan's performances in South Africa? A couple of years ago, such an idea would be laughable. Now Farfan has to be taken very seriously -- he deserves that.

Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.

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