David Owen ©ITG

The past couple of weeks have been Peru’s time in the international sports spotlight, with the South American nation making a good fist of hosting the Pan American Games, which draw to a close tonight in the capital, Lima.

So it would be remiss to allow the 83rd anniversary of what might have been the country’s first major international sports achievement - an Olympic medal -– to pass without comment.

It is an extraordinary story, with many questions left unanswered to this day.

Its ripples were felt around the world, leading what the New York Times described on its front page as a "Lima mob" to stone the German Consulate and one British newspaper columnist to bracket what transpired with cricket’s furious Bodyline row.

"Unless something is done," this journalist fretted, "I see a danger of sport in time rivalling religion and politics as war factors."

You might like me have assumed that Peruvian football did not really emerge as an international force until the 1970s team of Teófilo Cubillas and Héctor Chumpitaz. But this is to overlook the accomplishments of their predecessors four decades earlier.

This team’s supreme achievement was to lift the Copa América on home soil in 1939, beating the powerful Uruguayans - winners of the inaugural World Cup in 1930 - 2-1 in the tournament’s decisive match.

It is not that continental title which primarily concerns us here, however. This is rather the story of what happened three years earlier when the Peruvians travelled to Europe as the sole South American representatives in the Berlin 1936 Olympic football tournament.

We are talking about an era when South America had supplied the last two Olympic football gold medallists, in the shape, once again, of Uruguay. The last Olympic football final, indeed - in Amsterdam in 1928 - had featured two South American teams, with Argentina claiming the silver medal. The sport did not ultimately feature on the programme of the first Los Angeles Games in 1932.

Sixteen teams showed up in Hitler’s Nazi capital of Berlin, with Peru quickly serving notice that the South American challenge would once again be far from negligible.

Sporting their now famous red-sashed shirts, the Peruvians - whose journey to Germany, mainly by steamer, had taken all of 44 days - romped to a slick 7-3 victory over Finland.

Alejandro Villanueva, a tall playmaker with bewitching skills, scored two goals and Teodoro “Lolo” Fernández, a centre-forward known as "the cannoneer" (El Cañonero), no fewer than five.

This set them up for a quarter-final against Austria, conquerors of Egypt, the sole African representatives. The amateur regulations of the time meant that this was not the famed Wunderteam, epitomised by Matthias Sindelar, football’s original "false nine". It was nonetheless managed by the revered English coach Jimmy Hogan, whose association with Central European football had stretched over many years.

The match kicked off at 5.30pm on August 8, a Saturday, in the Hertha stadium in the Gesundbrunnen district. Another tie pitting Poland against Great Britain got under way in nearby Moabit at exactly the same time.

The bald facts as we know them are these: a well-balanced Austria ran up a 2-0 half-time lead against their skilful but robust opponents. Peru, however, continued to press.

Just after the hour mark, the Austrian inside-right Adolf Laudon had to be carried off - one report in the newspaper Freie Stimmen said this followed a kick in the stomach - and, with no substitutes permitted, the Peruvians seized their chance.

While their first goal is credited in some quarters to Jorge Alcade, it appears to have been an own goal following a goalmouth scramble. Then, in the 81st minute, El Cañonero slammed a shot against the Austrian crossbar and Villanueva was on hand to score from the rebound. Another newspaper, Der Morgen, reports that a second Austrian, Klement Steinmetz, scorer of one of their goals, was also injured. In any event, the South American comeback was complete; extra time beckoned.

It was at this point, with the teams about to try to end the deadlock via an additional 30 minutes of play, that an incident occurred which seems to have heated the atmosphere already simmering in the stadium to boiling-point.

Laudon returned to the field of play - a development that seemed to rile the Peruvians, both players and supporters, inordinately. Why? Sport-Tagblatt takes up the story: "The turmoil", it said, "in which the Peruvian supporters in the stands got involved in a fanatical way, grew worse and worse.

"In some confusion one wondered what could have driven the white and black Peruvians into such a blind fury. Only gradually was it understood that the Peruvians believed that the Austrians had exchanged the injured Laudon for another player, which was prohibited by the rules of the Olympic football tournament."

Peru still believe they were unfairly denied an Olympic medal at Berlin 1936 because they were the victim of a conspiracy ©Getty Images
Peru still believe they were unfairly denied an Olympic medal at Berlin 1936 because they were the victim of a conspiracy ©Getty Images

There is some corroboration for this in a story carried prominently by the British newspaper the Daily Sketch on the Monday after the match, by which time the diplomatic repercussions of what had transpired were beginning to escalate.

According to one of the paper’s men in Berlin, a certain W. Capel Kirby, the injured Austrian player’s return after treatment "brought an amazing protest from the Peruvians.

"They declared that it was not the injured player who had come back, but a substitute. All the players stood round arguing and gesticulating."

It is worth underlining at this point that Kirby was almost certainly not an eye witness to this, since he had been reporting on the simultaneous Great Britain versus Poland match, won 5-4 by the Poles. Instead, he seems to have relied on Peco Bauwens, a well-known German referee who was in the Hertha stadium, for the details he reported. Bauwens was granted the honour of refereeing the gold medal match in Berlin’s monumental Olympic Stadium a week later.

Accounts of what happened during the tumultuous final stages of the match vary considerably. A certain amount of chaos seems to have ensued, with the crowd spilling onto the pitch, possibly causing further injury to the Austrian contingent. Amid the confusion, the Peruvians outmuscled their depleted opponents, winning through two more late goals.

The report from Kirby/Bauwens, which has received quite wide currency in the intervening decades, is among the more colourful. It recounts how "more than 1,000 Peruvian supporters, shrieking, howling and waving flags, leapt the barriers and rushed on the field".

It goes on: "Austrian players were kicked and punched.

"Suddenly Dr Bauwens saw a Peruvian slip his hand into his hip pocket as if to draw a gun. Without a moment’s hesitation, Dr Bauwens seized the man by the throat and prevented him reaching the pocket. A violent struggle took place before the man was overpowered."

What is beyond dispute is that, as outlined by Volker Kluge in the Journal of Olympic History, Richard Eberstaller, the Austrian football President, lodged a protest with FIFA calling for the result to be annulled on grounds of the "unexampled rough excesses of the Peruvians as well as the repeated disturbance of the run of play by invasion of the pitch by the public".

To cut a long story short, a Jury of Appeal composed of Jules Rimet (France), G.Mauro (Italy), R.W.Seeldrayers (Belgium), Prof. R. Pelican (Czechoslovakia) and A.Johanson (Sweden) – Europeans all, one cannot help but notice – ordered a behind-closed-doors replay.

As noted in the Official Report of Berlin 1936, the jury’s investigations showed that "there existed factors hampering the normal course of events during the match, and that technical objections could not be made, but that the material organization of the tournament as provided by the customary rules, failed through unforeseen circumstances, so that it was impossible to prevent spectators from jumping into the field and impossible to prevent one of these spectators from kicking one of the players".

This report also observes a) that this caused "a decrease of the fighting energy of the team" and b) that such an incident "cannot be reconciled with the spirit of good sportsmanship”, but c) that the Jury of Appeal “was not able to discover the guilty person".

In the event, Peru failed to show for the replay, so the tie was awarded to Austria. In spite of winning their two matches by an 11-5 aggregate, the South Americans were out.

Back in Lima, news that FIFA had declared the original result invalid went down about as well as you would expect. According to Kluge, "a crowd of twenty thousand…demonstrated through the city centre”. They gathered at the palace, where the country’s President, General Oscar Benavides – who, to add a further wrinkle, was preparing for elections that coming October – made a speech from the balcony. Kluge goes on: “To great applause he announced that, in order to defend the honour of Peru, he had ordered the team to depart".

By August 12, the Daily Sketch was reporting that other South Americans "may quit Olympiad".

Meanwhile, Austria had won their semi-final against Poland 3-1, with Laudon scoring one of the goals. They ended up losing the final and taking home silver medals.

So, what to think?

Conclusion number one would have to be the idiocy of football refusing to allow substitutions - a state of affairs that, of course, persisted long after 1936.

Yet while we do not - and cannot now - know everything that happened, it is hard to think that justice was done.

Attendance at Peru versus Austria is put at 5,000, although some newspapers reported considerably higher figures. Peru and Germany are a long way apart. International travel was not straightforward: look at how long it took the Peruvian Olympic team to get to Berlin. While relations between Benavides’s Peru and Nazi Germany were not the worst, how many South Americans is it plausible to think were truly in the Hertha stadium that evening? More than 1,000? Really? Having tried to get to the bottom of things, I have considerable doubts on that score.

Another oddity: while there were a fair few action shots of the play taken by photographers present, I have yet to encounter a single photograph of this supposedly sensational pitch invasion.

There also seems room to ponder whether this was not in part a form of culture clash in an era when people in any given location had far less opportunity for exposure to foreign mores than we are used to having today. 

A Sport-Tagblatt article cited by Kluge puts a rather different complexion on the invasion, however extensive or sparse it may have been. "Again," it proclaims, "fanatics forced their way onto the field and kissed the players.

"But it was really bad at the end. We civilised central Europeans felt sorry for the players! The exertions of the two hours on the pitch were in our view not so great as the “kissing” ceremonies after the win. Every player was kissed by each of the Peruvians present."

There is another reason why it seems to me these Peruvian pioneers were probably hard done by.

The football gold medals in 1936 were won by Italy, who beat the United States 1-0 in their opening match. A US player, Bill Fiedler, is said to have suffered torn knee ligaments when "pushed roughly"by Achille Piccini of Italy. This is how a report published in the New York Times describes what then happened.

The referee “ordered the Italian from the game. Three times he tried to get Piccini to leave but finally gave up. A half dozen Italian players swarmed over the referee, pinning his hands to his sides and clamping hands over his mouth. The game was formally finished with Piccini still in the line-up."

This scarcely credible comportment, before a crowd said to have included Italian Crown Prince Umberto, appears to have gone unpunished in any meaningful way.

The Peruvians at least had the consolation of arriving home as national heroes. According to Kluge, once they had landed at the port of Callao on September 17, more than three months after they left, the press celebrated the footballers as the “real Olympic champions”. Specially-minted gold medals were also distributed.

While the colour of the Olympic medals they might have won must remain a matter for conjecture, it seems a reasonable hypothesis that they, like Austria, would have beaten Poland and fought their way to the final.

In all of modern Olympic history since 1896, Peru has still won just four Olympic medals.