Peru’s hopes and prayers have been answered. The country’s star striker, Paolo Guerrero, will be able to lead the team at next month’s World Cup in Russia after all.
Salvation for Guerrero, and Peru, arrived in the shape of the Swiss supreme court’s decision on Thursday to stay a doping ban that had appeared to rule Guerrero out of the tournament when it begins next month.
The fate of Guerrero, a 34-year-old striker, has dominated headlines in Peru, bringing thousands of anguished fans demanding his reinstatement into the streets and even leading the country’s president, Martín Vizcarra, to turn the case into a national priority. Peru is making a return to the World Cup for the first time in 36 years.
The ruling does not clear Guerrero of the doping charge; it merely frees him to play in the tournament. A final decision could be months away, but the judge in the case seemed to embrace the chance to let Guerrero play while he waits.
The judge, Christina Kiss, nodded to the sentiment and the solidarity shown towards Guerrero by other players in her decision. The captains of Peru’s three group-stage rivals all signed a letter in support of his reinstatement for the tournament, and Kiss acknowledged the negative impact of not having their “emblematic captain” alongside them would have on the remaining members of Peru’s roster.
She said it was significant that the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which had extended Guerrero’s ban, ruling him out of the World Cup, had concluded earlier this month that Guerrero “did not act intentionally.” He arrived at the team’s training base Thursday night.
CAS appeared to pre-empt Thursday’s ruling. Hours before Kiss’s decision was announced, it released a statement in which it said it would not object to Guerrero’s request to stay the verdict.
In Lima, Peruvians woke up to the news that their hero would play. Fans and neighbors quickly set up shop outside the home of Guerrero’s mother, Petronila Gonzales, in the southern district of Chorrillos and chanted, “Arriba Perú,” while waiting for her to make an appearance.
Angel Quispe, 66, a local composer, held a small speaker and played a salsa song he had composed especially for Guerrero. He wrote the song right after his suspension was announced, and said his lyrics are about faith and the idea that “he’s not the only Guerrero, this is a team of Guerreros” — or warriors in Spanish. Passing cars honked their horns and waved Peruvian flags from their windows.
When Petronila finally opened her door to face an avalanche of journalists camped out outside, she said: “From the bottom of my heart, thank you all for the support. I don’t have any words to express my gratitude.”
The Swiss court will rule later, probably long after the World Cup, on the 14-month ban CAS imposed after hearing appeals by the player and the world antidoping regulator. Guerrero had served a six-month ban for a cocaine metabolite he had unknowingly ingested, but the World Anti-Doping Agency had appealed the length of that ban, which had been shortened from its original length — one year — by a FIFA appeals committee.
CAS, while acknowledging Guerrero had received no competitive benefit from the metabolite, agreed with WADA that a longer ban was warranted. It said Guerrero bore some fault for its mere presence in his system.
In an interview with The New York Times earlier this month, Guerrero spoke of the anguish the case had caused not only him, but also his elderly parents, José and Petronila. He vowed to continue fighting to play in the World Cup, no matter the odds, until all legal avenues had been exhausted.
Guerrero traveled to Switzerland last week to meet with FIFA President Gianni Infantino. There he received little more than “deep understanding,” with FIFA insisting the issue was now out of its hands. The last-chance appeal, even as it did not clear Guerrero — it will likely be months before a verdict is reached — cleared the path for him to compete in the tournament when it begins June 14. Peru is grouped with Denmark, France and Australia.
Guerrero’s case has highlighted the challenges facing WADA, which is fighting to restore its reputation in the aftermath of the massive state-sponsored doping program by Russia that corrupted major sports events in recent years. WADA had appealed Guerrero’s reduced ban, arguing it was too lenient. Under WADA’s rules, athletes face bans of between one and two years even, as in the case of Guerrero, if they were found to have consumed a prohibited substance accidentally.
Guerrero’s problems began before a series of crucial qualification matches against Argentina and Colombia in October 2017. Before big games, Guerrero said, he endures stomach cramps and bouts of gastritis; to counter that, he drinks aniseed or apple tea.
Before those two matches, he had invited his mother and some friends to the team’s hotel in Lima. There, the group ordered drinks, and Guerrero ordered what he thought was his usual aniseed tea, which he would usually mix by pouring a sachet into a cup of hot water. This time, the tea arrived ready mixed for the group to share out of a jug. The issue, Guerrero said, is the tea might not have been aniseed, but coca tea, widely consumed across Peru but prohibited to soccer players because it can trigger doping violations.
CAS, siding with WADA, said Guerrero bore “some fault or negligence, even if it was not significant,” as justification for extending his suspension.
Guerrero’s return is a moment for celebration in Peru even before a ball has been kicked in Russia. Ten days ago, thousands of fans marched to the Estadio Nacional in solidarity with him. For weeks his fate has dominated the airwaves, relegating the political rebuilding of a country reeling from the sudden resignation of its former president to a secondary affair.
Since appearing at the 1982 World Cup, Peru had tried and failed to secure a spot through the highly competitive South American World Cup qualification competition. Pitched against World Cup luminaries like Argentina and Brazil, Peru came up short time and time again. The team required victory in a two-legged playoff against New Zealand to make it to Russia, but, at 34, Guerrero surely realized this was most likely his only chance to play in a World Cup.
“My biggest dream was always to play in the World Cup,” he said. “We passed many elimination phase, we carried these failures, but with a lot of sacrifice we finally managed it.”
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