When Peru upset the odds in 2017 to reach their first FIFA World Cup™ for 36 years, Renato Tapia was among a crop of exciting young talents in Ricardo Gareca’s promising squad.
Three years on and the midfielder’s resume includes World Cup experience, a Copa America final, and a recent move to Spain’s Celta Vigo, after honing his craft for seven seasons in Dutch football. Now 25 and enjoying the best period of his career, the Peruvian is facing into his second World Cup qualifying campaign with the confidence of one who has already endured its rigors and come out smiling.
And while South America’s road to Qatar 2022 has only just begun, no-one is surprised anymore by either Gareca’s Blanquirroja or Tapia and the rest of his generation. "We will qualify," he insisted ahead of Peru's forthcoming fixtures against Chile and Argentina.
FIFA.com: Despite a new country, new league, new club, and new team-mates, you’ve been a fixture in the Celta side since your arrival. You must be pleased with how well you’ve adapted.
Renato Tapia: I thought it’d take me a bit longer with it all being new and with the Spanish league being a lot more demanding, but I’ve been one of the most-used players. At Feyenoord, I didn't have much playing continuity, so I didn't expect to have such a full-on start to the season. It's something I’ve been after for a long time.
When it comes to winning back possession, you have one of the best records in the league, yet Celta is struggling near the foot of the table. How can the club turn things around?
While personally, it's very nice to have those stats, they count for nothing if we as a team aren’t getting the three points. We’ve not been getting the results we wanted, but in terms of overall play and creating chances, we’ve put on some very good performances, especially at home. It is a long championship and hopefully, our fortunes will turn soon. If not, then we can expect to suffer just like the last two years (Ed’s note: Celta have flirted with relegation in the last two seasons).
You moved to Europe at such a young age that you never got to play professionally in Peru. That first happened in the Netherlands. Can you tell us what you took from your time in Dutch football?
I experienced a lot of things that have made me mature faster. When I was 16, I went to FC Twente for a trial and ended up staying. For years I came and went between Peru and Holland, so there was a lot of travel, but I really enjoyed my time there. The first thing I did was to learn Dutch, but I liked it. I'm interested in languages and learning about other cultures.
In terms of football, I took a great deal from the experience. In Holland they’re more daring when it comes to using young players, the idea being that, by the time you’re 18 or 19, you have 50 top-flight games under your belt. That helped me a lot when I broke into the senior national side. You see the team from a different perspective.
With 53 caps, you’re something of a Blanquirroja veteran at this stage. What does Ricardo Gareca expect from you in midfield?
A great deal of commitment and a lot of composure on the ball. Ricardo is a very good coach and someone who sees the tactical and technical side of things. He's a guide. He talks to us a lot and really helps us decipher what goes on during matches, pointing out details that you just don’t notice in the heat of battle. He's taught me to grow as a player, and I value him a great deal.
After taking Peru to the World Cup and the final of the continental championship, Gareca is something of an idol. What aspects of his character would you single out?
A lot of people regard him as very serious, but he has a sense of humor. When we catch him in a good mood, we try to joke with him, which is when you realize that he was a player too and understands the environment and how to manage a group. In a team the most important thing is communication, and both he and his coaching staff know how to do it very well. I think that's been the key to having us more relaxed and solely focused on football.
In this your second World Cup qualifying campaign, Peru has the same nucleus of players that made it to Russia. Will that experience help this time around?
These qualifiers are three times as complicated. The other teams now know how Peru play, that we’re a very inventive team, especially in the final third. This is not the Peru of old that was vulnerable at home and often lost on the road. On the way to Russia, certain things happened that made us realize that we were on par with all the other teams and that we could get good results anywhere. We had our first ever win in Quito, we won in Paraguay for the first time in 12 years... That gives us another perspective on these qualifiers.
It’s fair to say that Peru is now firm candidates for one of four automatic tickets to Qatar. Will that extra pressure take a toll on the team?
It's about getting used to it as we've never had it before. The hardest thing is not reaching the top but staying there. Based on what we’ve done over the last four years, you could say we deserve to be at the next World Cup, but we know that’s not how things work. Having the same players as the previous campaign is a plus, and I think we're going to get a lot better. Our aim is to be in the top four and not have to rely on the play-offs. I know we're going to qualify, I'm absolutely certain. I say that from the heart, just as I said it after the opening game of the previous qualifiers. With a big effort and dedication from everyone, we'll make it.
Would you be bold enough to predict which teams will qualify?
That’s hard! Ecuador, for example, has their U-20 players that reached that World Cup and did very well. They’re going through the same generational change that we had four or five years ago. Venezuela also has players who three years ago were runners-up at the U-20 World Cup. I can’t say that they're not going to qualify. So, no, I couldn't tell you who the top five will be, counting the play-off berth. The only thing I can guarantee you is that Peru will be among them (laughs).
After a point away to Paraguay, you scored in what was a very good performance against Brazil, despite the defeat. What has the team taken from their start?
We weren’t happy with our performance against Paraguay. While it's true that we ended up with a point, we could just as easily have lost or won that game. So we couldn’t take a lot of positives from it or be happy about drawing in that manner. However, we played very well in the Brazil match and came away with positives, in spite of losing. I’ll hold on to the good things and look to improve on the bad.
Two significant rivals are up next: Chile, who desperately need a win, and an Argentina side that has hit the ground running. What would be a good return for Peru from this doubleheader?
We always aim for all six points, no matter who the opponents are. Chile has been among the elite for many years now and proved to be a complicated opponent for us in the last qualifying campaign. The key will be to go out and battle them on an equal footing. And Argentina, for their part, has a lot of new faces, but they’re players of quality who seem at ease with international responsibilities. People like Lautaro [Martinez], [Leandro] Paredes, and [Nicolas] Tagliafico... They’re going to be two very difficult matches, but we're going to try to win them both.
After the experience of Russia 2018, what would it mean for this group to contest the Qatar World Cup?
We’d be a lot more mature going into it. I think if the group keeps developing like it is, then by that stage we could be talking of a team with almost everyone heading for 100 caps. We could be at a whole new level and have a different groove. As a group, you’d be talking about a whole other Peru.