No sooner had Pele won his and Brazil’s third FIFA World Cup™ in 1970 than he was asked if he would be returning in 1974 for his fifth appearance in the competition. “No,” he replied, “but don’t worry, because I have a successor and his name is Teofilo Cubillas.”
As time would tell, the then 21-year-old Peruvian attacking midfielder would not quite live up to that lofty prediction, though his performances in Mexico suggested he would go far in the game. A star performer in a gifted side that came close to accounting for Brazil in the quarter-finals, he ended the tournament as the third-highest scorer behind West Germany's Gerd Muller and Jairzinho of Brazil, collecting the adidas Bronze Boot and the Best Young Player Award.
As those achievements show, Pele had every reason to identify a special gift in Cubillas, a talent he would fulfil during the course of an illustrious 23-year career that led to him being recognised as one of the finest players to grace the game in the 20th century.
A precocious Peruvian
Born in Puente Piedra, a suburb in the north of the Peruvian capital of Lima, Cubillas began his career with local club Huracan Boys. He made the move to Alianza Lima, the team closest to his heart, after impressing against them in a friendly. The youngster wasted little time in showing what he could do, having only turned 16 when he made a goalscoring league debut for Los Blanquiazules in 1966. His boyish looks quickly earned him the nickname of El Nene (The Kid) and his fearless approach to the game earned him many admirers.
“He went out there to have fun, to enjoy himself,” said Victor Zegarra, who went from being Cubillas’s idol to his team-mate. “I saw him do some amazing things and score some incredible goals.”
“He was a quick thinker and quick on the ball too,” added former international colleague German Leguia. “There you were trying to guess what he’d do and he’d already done it.”
Cubillas has always been reluctant to pigeonhole himself when asked to define his playing position. “I don’t have a fixed position,” he would say in response. “I play everywhere in attack.”
That licence to roam and his lethal finishing skills brought him 268 goals in 469 Peruvian first division matches, making him one of the most prolific goalscoring midfielders of all time, eclipsing the career tallies of the likes of Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini.
He was a quick thinker and quick on the ball too. There you were trying to guess what he’d do and he’d already done it.
It came as no surprise when, at the age of only 19, he was called up to the national team by Peru’s Brazilian coach Didi, a prominent member of the side that conquered the world at Sweden 1958 - one that also contained Pele.
“Didi was responsible for my free-kicks, shooting and for making me, a right-footed player, into a two-footed player,” Cubillas once said. The young Peruvian began to make a name for himself outside his homeland in 1969, when he played a vital role in the 2-2 draw in Buenos Aires that took Peru through to Mexico 1970 at Argentina’s expense.
The highlight of his three FIFA World Cups came at that very tournament, as he explained to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview last year: “It was the opening goal against Bulgaria at Mexico 1970, a game we won 3-2 after going 2-0 down. There’d been an earthquake in Peru just a few days earlier and we found out just before we went out to play that 50,000 people had died. Knowing that we’d brought a little bit of happiness to the country was a feeling that is impossible to put into words.”
Europen adventure precedes '78 brilliance
Europe got to see more of El Nene in 1971, when he teamed up with Hugo Sotil in a combined team made up of players from Alianza Lima and Municipal, scoring twice in a 4-1 friendly win over a Bayern Munich side containing Muller and Franz Beckenbauer.
After going on to top-score in the Copa Libertadores, Cubillas was voted the South American Footballer of the Year in 1972. The following year, however, Peru missed out on qualification for Germany 1974, and further disappointment came when, against many people’s expectations, Rinus Michels’ Barcelona overlooked Cubillas and signed countryman Sotil instead.
The mercurial No10 moved instead to Basel, swapping chilly Switzerland for the warmer climes of Portugal a few months later, where he would spend three seasons with Porto. It was during his stay with Os Dragões that he disobeyed club orders to play for Peru in the 1975 Copa America final replay against Colombia, which Peru won despite Cubillas missing a penalty.
The player returned to Peru in 1977, immediately getting back to winning ways with Alianza Lima and helping them to consecutive league titles. Cubillas returned to the FIFA World Cup at Argentina 1978, scoring five goals to win the adidas Silver Boot.
The most memorable of those goals was an outrageous free-kick in the 3-1 defeat of Scotland, Cubillas caressing the ball round the Scottish wall and into the top corner with the outside of his right boot. Zico described the strike as “perfect”, while Paraguayan goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert, himself an adept set-piece specialist, said: “When I saw that goal I decided that I wanted to take free-kicks too.”
Four years later he was back on the big stage at Spain 1982, where Peru failed to progress beyond the group phase and he missed out on a place in the Team of the Tournament. Despite going goalless in Spain, Cubillas is still South America’s joint third-highest FIFA World Cup goalscorer along with Gabriel Batistuta and behind only Ronaldo and Pele. No Peruvian has played more world finals matches than he, and as a mark of his influence, that 1982 appearance was La Blanquirroja’s last at the global showpiece to date.
By that time he was playing his club football for Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the newly created North American Soccer League, lining up alongside George Best and Elias Figueroa. He then rejoined Alianza Lima, deciding to retire in 1986 only to return as player-coach a year later following a plane crash in which the entire Aliancista squad was killed, a return he almost capped with a championship win.
Sent off just once in his career, he retired for good in 1989, taking his leave with American second division outfit Miami Sharks. And though he ultimately failed to emulate the great Pele, he made a considerable mark on the game, later being named by O Rei in the FIFA 100, the only player from his country to receive that distinction.
“All these things have made me see that what I did as a player was not in vain,” Cubillas once commented. “I reaped the benefits and I’m enjoying them as much today as I did when I was playing.”
Did You Know?
Cubillas is still Peru’s all-time leading goalscorer with 26 goals in 81 appearances. Of the country’s top ten marksmen, only Paolo Guerrero with 15 goals and Claudio Pizarro with 14 are still playing.
Cubillas is one of 48 players to have scored a FIFA World Cup™ hat-trick. El Nene added his name to the list at Argentina 1978, scoring three against Iran in a 4-1 win in the group phase.
Cubillas’s favourite goal was not his free-kick against Scotland at Argentina 1978 but a similar set-piece against Brazil in 1975: “It was a folha seca (dry leaf) shot, as they call it. It was from the same position as the Scotland goal, but I hit it hard towards the other post. The ball went up and then dipped down into the top corner. Didi taught me that one.”
Cubillas remains the youngest top scorer in the history of the Peruvian league, having topped the charts with 19 goals in 1966 at the age of just 17 years and seven months.
No Peruvian player has scored more goals in a single European season than Cubillas, who struck 36 times in 39 games for Porto in 1975/76. Twenty-eight of those goals came in the Portuguese league, four in the cup and another four in the UEFA Cup.