It was a lovely Monday afternoon: I had the day off from work and was showing my family around New York City. We were on our way to Rockefeller Center (my mom wanted to see where the “really big tree” goes during Christmas) when I glanced at my phone, stopped dead in my tracks and yelled, “OH MY GOD.” On my phone, the words “Peru captain Guerrero to miss World Cup after doping ban increased” tainted my screen. Our star player and beloved captain, Paolo Guerrero, will miss Peru’s first appearance in the World Cup since 1982.
My reaction was dramatic, but Peru’s road to Russia has not lacked in dramatics in the past year. From the will-we-or-won’t-we-qualify-after-36-years butterflies flying violently in the pits of our stomachs since September to Guerrero testing positive in a drug test in October to securing the 32nd and final spot for the 2018 World Cup in November to FIFA banning Guerrero for one year (and reportedly, missing the World Cup) in early December to the ban being reduced to six months (and therefore, just in time for Guerrero to play in the World Cup) in late December, the journey has certainly been one hell of a ride.
And it wasn’t over yet. Monday’s news slapped us with an unexpected jolting twist. The Court of Arbitration for Sport increased Guerrero’s suspension from six to 14 months, until January – which means he’s officially out of the tournament. According to reports, the result was “on the basis that he did bear ‘some fault or negligence’ for the positive test,” even though FIFA had already accepted the argument that the substance, benzoylecgonine – a metabolite of cocaine – was accidentally consumed in contaminated tea or mate de coca, a traditional drink used in the high altitudes of the Andes.
As a fan, it all felt a little surreal with the World Cup only a month away. La Blanquirroja will have to play without its all-time leading scorer and one of the major reasons that it’s going to the tournament – Guerrero scored six goals in the final round of qualifying.
Later that day, I texted my friend and fellow Peruvian, Sports Illustrated journalist Luis Miguel Echegaray, for a little reassurance and and asked him, “We’ll be all right, right?” He wrote back, “Yeah, we will.”
He’s right. But, it is a time to mourn – to mourn what should’ve been a triumphant return to the World Cup after 36 years with our fearless leader Guerrero leading the pack. The 34-year-old player opened up in a heartbreaking video about the news on his official Facebook page. “I feel that my dream, first of playing soccer, and second, to play in the World Cup after 36 years, I feel like I’ve lost it,” Guerrero said.
“So to the people who contributed in this embarrassing injustice, robbing me from a World Cup, and perhaps even my career, I hope you can sleep in peace,” Guerrero added.
Very soon, the Peruvian national team (and the fans, especially the fans) will have to pick up their heads and believe that we’ll be all right. As Echegaray so eloquently says in a video for Sports Illustrated, “Peru is so much more than just one player, even our beloved captain.”
In a press conference Wednesday, head coach Ricardo Gareca gave some comforting words to the nation. “We know of Paolo’s innocence. We know that he’s a sensational player, an idol, who deserves all of the praise, but our story continues,” said Gareca.
“I don’t know how it’s going to go for us in the World Cup,” Gareca added. “What I can assure people is that we will be prepared. That we will be prepared for what is coming.”
As we’ve seen in the past two friendlies against Iceland and Croatia and the playoffs against New Zealand in November, the squad (sans Guerrero) is in great hands with Gareca – who has helped transform La Blanquirroja into a World Cup-qualifying team. One of his strategies was to bring on a team psychologist to help the Peruvian players cope with the pressure and weight after years and years of losing at the national level. In a way, it has helped the team rewrite its own history.
In reality, Peru hasn’t lost a match in more than a year-and-a-half, undefeated for 12 matches. The names for Peru’s provisional World Cup roster were released Wednesday and players like Jefferson Farfán, Christian Cueva, Edison Flores, Raúl Ruidíaz and more were called up.
“We are taking two centre-forwards with different characteristics,” Gareca said in the press conference. “Farfán can outjump any defense in the world. Raúl [Ruidíaz], with his stature, can win balls in the air. We have the means to hold up the ball in attack, as Paolo has done, and now, with the players we have.”
I’m remaining hopeful, though, a part of me doesn’t believe the ride on this literal montaña rusa is quite over. It is of course, a Cinderella story. And what’s a Cinderella story without a dramatic 36-year return to the ball?