Becoming a country's all-time leading scorer is not something you do every day. Paolo Guerrero knows this all too well: it took him 12 years and 70 caps for Peru to amass the 27 goals required to surpass the legendary Teofilo Cubillas, who had held the record for almost four decades with his haul of 26 goals in 81 international appearances.
Nevertheless, Guerrero was quick to downplay his exploits. "I don't think about statistics," said the Peru captain shortly sealing a tight 1-0 victory over Haiti in both countries' opening Copa America Centenario fixture. "I'm focused on our collective objective, which is to go as far as possible. The plan is to have a great tournament and, God willing, to reach the final," added the No9, who was named Man of the Match for the game in Seattle.
Yet the 32-year-old, who made his international debut at the age of 20, is adamant that he is only "thinking about the group". "My priority is for the team to win, for my team-mates to thrive and for them to get goosebumps every time they pull on the national team shirt," insisted the marksman.
Respect between legends
One of the first people to publicly congratulate the forward was the very man he has overtaken. "I want to send my greetings and congratulations to the FPF [Peruvian FA] and particularly Paolo Guerrero after he became the leading scorer in the red-and-white shirt," tweeted Cubillas, who had previously told FIFA.com that he would have no qualms about paying tribute to Guerrero's achievements: "Anyone who thinks I might get pangs of nostalgia because of someone else taking the record doesn't know me. I even went to the Estadio Nacional in Lima for the [World Cup] qualifier against Venezuela in March, so that I could congratulate him in person if he broke the record there and then. Paolo deserves every credit for what he's done and I'm happy for him."
To put Guerrero's feat into context, it is worth remembering that Cubillas scored ten of his 26 international goals at the FIFA World Cup™, more than any other Peruvian player. Having enjoyed three different campaigns on the global stage, he even won the adidas Bronze Boot at Mexico 1970 and the adidas Silver Boot at Argentina 1978.
"Back then we didn't pay attention to statistics, but here's hoping Paolo or someone else can beat that mark too, because that would mean Peru playing in a World Cup again. I'm an eternal optimist and I always want my country to win," added Cubillas, who retired in 1988 after a career spanning 22 years.
The legend was unstinting in his praise for his heir, who has shone in Brazil at club level in recent years after a long, sparkling spell in Germany. "Paolo is a first-class goalscorer. I was a midfielder who got forward, but he's a true penalty-box predator. He has an eye for goal and is always there to finish things off: that's his speciality and he does it very well. His biggest strength is that he always gets himself in the right positions to score goals."
Guerrero has an instrumental role in the current Peru squad, under the stewardship of Ricardo Gareca. "Paolo is a very important player because of his influence in the group and what he represents. I hold him in very high regard both as a player and as a professional. I know what he feels when he represents his country and him getting that goal was very important for us," the coach said after the win over Haiti.
Indeed, it is around Guerrero that Gareca has built his team for the Copa America, where he is hopeful that the experience gained will stand some of his less seasoned players in good stead for the remainder of the road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. Peru are currently lying in eighth, six points off the pace in the race for qualification: "There are lads who have never played with him and it's important for them to do that. Over time, I hope that their understanding will grow."
In the meantime, Guerrero continues to humbly go about his business, sticking the ball in the net while putting the team's goals first and not resting on his laurels. In his words, "We need to improve our final ball in attack, and in defence we need to be more switched-on at set-pieces because in these short tournaments, mistakes cost you dearly."
Congratulations Paolo! What a great goalscorer! #GoPeru #CopaAmerica
— Peruvian National Team Twitter account (@FPFPeru) 5 June 2016