Copa América Centenario Will Push Paolo Guerrero to Rise to the Occasion

The defeat on May 22 against Grêmio was Paolo Guerrero’s tenth Brazilian league game in a row without a goal for Flamengo – hardly ideal form for a striker preparing for a major international competition. But Brazil, Ecuador, and Haiti, Peru’s group stage opponents in the upcoming Copa América Centenario, should not be fooled. The world’s oldest international tournament always seems to bring out the best in Guerrero.

In the lead up to the 2015 Copa América, he seemed more concerned with contract negotiations than goals as his should-I-stay-or-should-I-go saga with Corinthians dragged on interminably. In one of his final performances for the team he was hopelessly ineffective, as the São Paulo club was dumped out of the Copa Libertadores by little Paraguayan squad Guarani.

None of that seemed to worry the Lima-born striker a few weeks later in Chile, however. He finished Copa América with four goals, making him the tournament’s joint top scorer alongside the host nation’s Eduardo Vargas. Guerrero seemed to get better as the competition went on, grabbing a hat-trick in the quarterfinals against Bolivia and one in the third place playoff against Paraguay.

It was a continuation of his form at the 2011 Copa América in Argentina, when was also top-scorer. There, he got on the scoresheet against eventual winners Uruguay and Mexico in the group stage before plundering a hat-trick against Venezuela in the third place playoff.

Not that Guerrero only shines at Copa América. Although he has never played at the World Cup – Peru last qualified for the tournament in 1982 – he has enjoyed a rich club career in both Europe and South America. Now approaching the veteran stage at 32, Guerrero shone for Bayern Munich and Hamburg SV in Germany and then with Corinthians, for whom he memorably scored the winner in the 2012 Club World Cup final, with an opportunistic header past Petr Cech and a ragged Chelsea defense.

“I’m crazy!” he has said in the past. “I like to be an extrovert, to make people laugh.”

That goal gave Guerrero a claim to fame that few can boast – scoring arguably the most important goal in the history of one of the world’s biggest clubs – and showcased his knack of rising to the occasion when the stakes are highest.

Like more than a few South American stars, however, the tattoo-covered Guerrero’s prodigious talents are coupled to an occasionally volatile nature. In 2010, he hurled a water bottle at a fan in the stands when with Hamburg, and his gruesome tackle on Stuttgart goalkeeper Sven Ulreich when at the same club in 2012 earned him an eight-game ban.

“I’m crazy!” he has said in the past. “I like to be an extrovert, to make people laugh.”

Along with his thrashing, all-action playing style – with his limbs flailing and short dreadlocks flying on the pitch, the leggy, muscular Guerrero makes an imposing figure – and a weakness for glamorous, high-profile girlfriends (his acrimonious break up with Brazilian model Barbara Evans in 2014 made him a fixture of the celebrity gossip columns), such moments have given the striker a larger-than-life profile, and a biopic is currently in production in Peru.

Perhaps his taste for the dramatic stems from the unusual circumstances surrounding his entry into the world on January 1, 1984, when his mother was forced to give birth in darkness after Lima suffered a blackout following the New Year’s Eve fireworks.

Despite such seemingly inauspicious beginnings, Guerrero was born into a storied soccer family. His brother, Julio Rivera, won a Copa Libertadores runners-up medal with Sporting Cristal in 1997, and three of his uncles played the game professionally.

Peru are currently third from bottom of the South American qualifying group for Russia 2018, and the player will be 34 by the time that tournament comes around.

One of those uncles, José “Caíco” González Ganoza, was a victim of the tragic plane crash in 1987 that claimed 43 victims, among them the players, directors, staff, and cheerleaders of one of Peru’s biggest clubs, Alianza Lima. The event would instill a terrible, lifelong fear of flying in Guerrero.

Copa América Centenario is likely to represent Guerrero’s last hurrah on the international stage – Peru is currently third from the bottom of the South American qualifying group for Russia 2018, and the player will be 34 by the time that tournament comes around.

Yet despite being a disappointment at Flamengo, for whom he signed amidst much ballyhoo last year, Guerrero remains Peru’s biggest name, especially after national coach Ricardo Gareca, who is keen to revitalize his squad with younger players, dropped established, if aging, stars such as Claudio Pizzarro and Jefferson Farfan from his Copa América squad. Guerrero’s goal (his 27th in a Peru shirt) in a 2-2 draw with Venezuela in March made him the country’s all-time top-scorer.

The player has admitted he will feel the absence of his veteran teammates in the U.S., but also says his club soccer woes will not affect his performances once Peru kicks off the competition against Haiti in Seattle on June 4. “My Flamengo form won’t make a difference…I’m going to do things right and have a good tournament,” he said when he arrived in Lima last week.

Given his history, it would take a brave man to write off Paolo Guerrero’s chances of once again making the headlines at this year’s Copa América.