On October 10th 2017, Peru’s captain and all-time top goal scorer Paulo Guerrero scored the free-kick that booked Peru a spot in the play-offs.
The South Americans knew they were on the brink of their first World Cup finals in 36 years, as only footballing minnows New Zealand now stood in their way. As the best player of Peru’s current generation, and the country’s only Ballon d’Or nominee ever, Guerrero’s goal fit perfectly into the narrative of such a revered footballer and elevated his already god-like status once more.
But just three weeks later, shockwaves were sent across the nation when it was revealed the former Bayern Munich forward had tested positive for cocaine, and had been given a provisional suspension.
His absence didn’t prevent Peru from qualifying for the World Cup as they coasted past an insipid New Zealand side, but shortly afterwards Guerrero was given a one-year ban that meant he would miss out on Russia.
I was in Peru as the headlines quickly changed from unbridled joy to outrage. In the capital city of Lima, you’d be hard pressed to find a fan without a Guerrero shirt, flag, or tattoo. Peruvians blindly jumped to his defence, ignoring the rights or wrongs of his alleged crime.
Following an appeal in December, his ban was reduced to just six months: his lawyers claimed that he had merely drunk coca tea, a common beverage in Peru made from the leaves that are used to manufacture cocaine.
Peruvians celebrated the decision, and sports journalist Tim Vickery described it as a ‘triumph for justice’ now that Guerrero would be free to lead his team out in Russia. However, as his suspension draws to a close he’s not yet in the clear, as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced last week that they will appeal to increase Guerrero’s ban.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) will hear their plea on May 3rd, while Guerrero has separately launched an appeal to overturn his six-month ban altogether.
For Peruvians, the World Cup is a shining light in a year when corruption has been exposed at the highest levels of their government, and sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church have plagued many corners of the country. It is difficult not to root for the nation, and by extension, for Guerrero.
That being said, it’s fair to say they haven’t missed him much so far. Having overcome New Zealand without him, the Andean nation made it 12 matches unbeaten with wins over Croatia and Iceland in March - the talents of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic were stifled by Peru’s far less famous midfield.
This remarkable run has also included wins over Uruguay and Ecuador, as well as a draw away against Argentina in October. The South American nation, so often overlooked for their more prestigious neighbours, are in incredibly fine form as the World Cup approaches.
And they’ll have to be as they share Group C with France, Denmark and Australia. Their first match, against Denmark, may well decide who gets second spot assuming France dominate the group.
Peru may have proven they can survive without Guerrero, but they will want their best player back for such difficult fixtures. Accordingly, they’ve arranged three more friendlies before the tournament begins as manager Ricardo Gareca looks to reintroduce his star striker into the team: whether that will be permitted, remains to be seen.
Guerrero, whose name in Spanish means ‘warrior’, will fight for his place on the plane to Russia until the very last moment, both on and off the field. Though the legendary Jefferson Farfán has proved a fine replacement in recent months, Peru will want to make sure they can bring their 23 best players after waiting so long for a place at a World Cup.
For the fans travelling to the other side of the world to watch their team, they’ll hope to stay as long as possible, and that’s all the more likely with the warrior in their side.