Tragedy, a winding road, and success at Cruz Azul brings Juan Reynoso back home to Peru

After taking Peru to the 2018 World Cup -- the squad's first in 36 years -- and coming just short of qualifying for the 2022 tournament -- Ricardo Gareca will be a hard act to follow as national team coach. But Peru have probably found the best available replacement in Juan Maximo Reynoso.

A lanky Argentine with the air of a rock roadie, Gareca did a wonderful job hauling Peru out of a decades-long pit that started back when La Blanquirroja had discarded Reynoso as a player.

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A teenage centre-back with presence and personality who could also play in midfield, Reynoso picked up a thigh injury while playing for Peruvian giants Alianza Lima late in 1987 -- an apparently minor detail that likely ended up saving his life. He was not taken to the next game, away to Deportivo Pucallpa. On the way back, the team's plane crashed. All the players and coaching staff onboard died, including Marcos Calderon, Peru's boss in the 1978 World Cup.

Already a senior Peru international, Reynoso was not yet 18 at the time of the tragedy. He went on to wear the shirt with the famous red sash 84 times. He was the captain and the defensive pillar of the side that only missed out on the 1998 World Cup in France on goal difference.

But by the time that the next cycle of World Cup qualifiers began, Reynoso was no longer part of the team. Colombian coach Francisco Maturana came in and decided to make a change. Reynoso was only 30 and in the midst of a legendary career at Liga MX club Cruz Azul. He had recently been chosen as the best centre-back in Mexican football, and had plenty still to give on the international level. But Maturana seemed intimidated by his power of leadership, and decided to move on without him. It proved an appalling decision, akin to the removal of the foundation stone of a building.

Reynoso was not only fundamental as a footballer. He was also the leader, the man who held the team together -- and especially its defensive unit. After just failing to qualify for France, Peru did not come remotely close to qualifying for the next four World Cups. It was the same old story, especially away from home. It hardly seemed to matter how well the team started. Once they conceded the opening goal they would collapse. Peru's away record in those four World Cup qualification campaigns post-Reynoso (and pre-Gareca) could be a prime example of poor performance -- two wins, six draws, 27 defeats, with 22 goals scored and 78 conceded.

Essentially what Gareca managed to do with the side when he was hired in 2015 was restore the confidence and self-esteem that flooded out the moment that Reynoso was prematurely exiled. Meanwhile, to nobody's surprise, Reynoso was channeling the virtues of leadership, intelligence and determination into a distinguished coaching career. He won Peruvian titles with three different clubs, and was especially successful with Melgar from the southern city of Arequipa. True, he was unable to make much progress in continental club competitions, but no one has pulled off that trick with a Peruvian club for some 25 years.

And Reynoso's pedigree was proved when he went to back to Mexico City and coached Cruz Azul to a 2021 league title -- their first since 1997 when he had been the stalwart defender. Reynoso could have been given the Peru job before -- instead of Gareca, for example, or earlier when they were floundering. But there was always a feeling that the authorities were scared of him, with his steely gaze and his firm convictions.

But now, in the post-Gareca era and with no meaningful matches in the near future, Peru need Reynoso. The bar has been raised, and the time has come for the former captain to stride forcefully home as the coach.