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Peruvian striker Polo makes headlines

"By Tim Vickery "

Universitario of Peru visited Vasco da Gama in the quarter-finals of South America's Europa League equivalent [called the Copa Sul-Americana in Brazil, the Sudamericana elsewhere on the continent] and in their ranks was 17-year-old striker Andy Polo.

 

Already linked with Liverpool and Arsenal, Polo is of particular interest to me. He is something I have been waiting for.

 

It was August 1994 when I moved over to this side of the Atlantic. Polo was born at the end of the following month.

 

He is the first player to make a major impact who has been in South America for less time than I have.

 

A strong, stocky, sinuous runner, he is reminiscent in style to his compatriot Jefferson Farfan. Earlier this year, Polo helped his club win an under-20 version of the Copa Libertadores, the continent's Champions League.

 

The stand-outs were Polo and a team-mate, the lithe, left sided Edison Flores. Both - and especially Polo - have made a successful graduation to the senior side.

 

It was in late September, a few days before his 17th birthday, that Polo really had me out of my seat. The event was Peru's big derby, Universitario against Alianza Lima.

 

This is always a huge occasion, and a real test for a rookie.

 

Polo showed strength of character and strength of physique, at one point carving out a clear opportunity with a crash-ball run straight through the middle of the experienced Alianza defence.

 

This was clearly a name for the notebook.

 

Normally my protective interest in a player such as this would have me hoping that he is not tempted to take the risk of a premature move.

 

In this case, though, there is no use. He will inevitably be packing his bags before long - the economic situation of his club leaves little alternative.

 

Universitario are a big club with a proud tradition. Although they are traditionally identified with the elite, and their rivals Alianza with the mass of the population, there are surveys which claim that Universitario's support is at least as big. In terms of titles there is no doubt about it - they lead the Peruvian pack.

 

They have been in financial trouble for some time now. But recent events seem to have tipped them over the edge, into a chapter of their history which includes both genuine tragedy and dark comedy.

 

The tragedy came in that very derby against Alianza where Polo announced his presence. It took place in Universitario's impressive, modern stadium.

 

Security arrangements were not so impressive. A group of visiting fans were in one of the executive boxes - in theory the safest part of the ground. Some home supporters broke in, beat them up and threw one to his death.

 

It pales in comparison with the human consequences, but the incident had a further negative impact on the club's finances. They have not been able to use their stadium since, borrowing a small ground in neighbouring Callao for league games and moving into the revamped National stadium for last week's first leg against Vasco.

 

The comedy lies in some of the recent antics. In May, the club forgot to take their change strip to Trujillo to play Cesar Vallejo. The players had to take the field in training tops with the numbers drawn on with felt pen.

 

The weekend before last was even more bizarre. In a bid to save money, the team waited until Sunday morning to fly up to Cuzco to face Cienciano, but the flight was delayed. Come kick-off time, they still had not arrived.

 

There was only one solution. The reserves - basically a junior team - had just played the reserves of Cienciano, losing 1-0. Now they would have to play again.

 

The referee only authorised nine of them to take the field, since they were the only ones with professional contracts. Halfway through the first half, the delegation arrived. With two extra players and three substitutions, Universitario could strengthen the side.

 

But for 20 minutes they were down to nine tired kids. It is a wonder they only lost 3-0.

 

It is also a wonder that they have reached the quarter-finals of the Sul-Americana, with a terrific chance of making the last four.

 

Admittedly Vasco, with an eye on the Brazilian title, sent a weakened team to Lima for the first leg. Even so, in their 2-0 win, Universitario did enough to suggest they can reach the semis even if Vasco unleash the full-strength side on Wednesday.

 

Certainly there seems to be no lack of motivation among the Peruvians - even though they have not been paid for five months.

 

The accumulated wage bill could have serious consequences. Tired of waiting, the players are refusing to sign the pre-match paperwork, meaning that the club forfeit any points won on the field. The second division is beckoning.

 

The Copa Sul-Americana, meanwhile, is a question of professional pride and also a chance for the players to put themselves in the shop window.

 

There are one or two other interesting prospects. Raul Ruidiaz is a tricky little striker, though talk of "the Peruvian Messi" is hardly fair, and not just because Ruidiaz is right-footed. There is Edison Flores. Alvaro Ampuero is a tall, left-footed defensive midfielder with a promising future.

 

But the brightest bulb in the firmament is Polo, whose speed, strength and skill look tailor made for European football.

 

In an ideal world, a transfer would not happen yet. But force of circumstances is likely to push this one through sooner rather than later. Losing Polo would surely leave a hole in the hearts of Universitario supporters. But the club need to sell to survive.