On Monday, May 14, 2018, my newspaper, fresh with yesterday’s news, showcased Paolo Guerrero’s return to goal scoring. Following a six-month reduced suspension, he had returned to training with his club, Flamengo, and had sent into the net the temporary 1-1 equalizer against Chapecoense (the latter would go on to win 3-2).
The rejoicing was understandable. He’d been banned for a positive benzoylecgonine result (which often indicates the use of cocaine) and was originally to miss 14 months; it had been reduced on December 20th, following an appeal to FIFA, but for six months Guerrero was unable to train professionally with his club. Worse, the ban meant he, Peru’s captain, would miss the World Cup. The World Cup we hadn’t attended for 36 years and for which we finally had a competitive team. A team led by Ricardo Gareca from the bench and Guerrero from the field.
But there he was. Back in training. Back to scoring. We had nothing to fear from Australia, from Denmark, from France (yes, Griezmann’s France). Our captain was back.
Except he wasn’t.
“No evil can last 36 years”
My family, a middle-class Lima-based unit, comprises people between 81 years (my grandpa) and 5 months old (my youngest cousin). This baby cousin has an older sister, who will be 4 this June. Her dad is 40.
Obviously, none of my cousins have watched Peru in a World Cup. Their father, four years old in 1982, was too young to fully remember. It’s the same as not having seen it.
36 years. Two generations who have never cheered Peru in a World Cup. Four, if you really break it down—my younger uncles (40 and 36), myself (21), my teenage cousins, my kid cousins. Gen Xers/Millennials, post-millennials, Gen Z, whatever generation comes next. All bound together by that absence. None of us remember seeing our country in the Panini album.
When you’ve been through hell, purgatory gets easier.
This shaped the way we appreciate football. Having a second team became a custom before we even realized. Several people chose Brazil. My family chose Argentina. We were horrified at the 4-0 in South Africa. We suffered the first of the Messi generation’s three lost finals (the following two would take place in the 2015 and 2016 editions of Copa América). We had no blood ties to the country, but we had to feel like part of the party, somehow. As Andrés Edery illustrated on June 7, 2014, “this World Cup, adopt a Peruvian”. We begged others to do just that for eight tournaments.
That’s not to say everyone had stopped believing. I confess I did, but even as the general spirit was crushed by scandals, stupid missed chances, missed hopes and one great match against Argentina followed by a lousy one against, say, Bolivia (and since Bolivia didn’t have Messi with them, we were expected to win that game), people always went back to hoping. The calculator would show a tiny chance and we’d cling to it until we lost it, as always.
Still, many of us came back. Because Daniel Peredo did.
Peredo didn’t have the stereotypical voice of a narrator on this side of the world. Calm tends to mark English narrations. In South America, narrators yell passionately. Peredo didn’t have a strong voice, but he had the passion.
I could say a lot about Peredo, who, as the past tense shows, left us way too soon. On February 19, 2018 at age 48, to be precise. Only a few months from the World Cup, his big dream, the one he never stopped pushing for even while our hopes fell every four years. He still believed. He still elevated Jefferson Farfán and Juan Manuel Vargas to heroic status, as if to remind them and us what they could do if only they focused and left all the drama behind. There could only be one more goal, as there was here, in the Estadio Nacional, on October 10, 2017.
Twenty minutes earlier, James had scored. It felt like the score was 5-0, given how four of the five spots (including the one for the playoffs against Oceania’s New Zealand) were being decided in that very moment. With a Colombian triumph, we’d fall to sixth and would have to hope the wait would stop at 40 years. A tie, and we had the playoff. It would’ve been easier had we been playing well. We weren’t.
Paolo Guerrero was to play an indirect free kick. He didn’t get it and went for a full free kick. If it got in without interference, we were lost. Ospina touched it. It went in.
Peredo’s “HE TOUCHED IT! HE TOUCHED IT! GOAL! GOAL! GOAL!” was the sound piece of our minds, the echo in our voices through the living rooms and bars. He expressed what I couldn’t say due to the shock. The tie against Argentina here in Lima had renewed my love for the team. The triumph against Ecuador, the first time in my 21 years in this world I had seen my country in a qualifying position, had made me hopeful (which I had never expected). The game with Colombia had been making me feel like a fool, even worse due to the knowledge that I couldn’t walk away from this national team. I had tried and failed.
And then, Paolo kicked. Ospina touched the ball. It went in. It was valid. We had a bloody chance at going, for the first time in my whole life, in my aunt’s life, in my cousins’ lives. We just had to beat New Zealand and that would be all. We’d go to Russia.
Then the news arrived. A positive result in the doping test in Buenos Aires. Paolo was out.
How to be a Peruvian hero
Looking back in our history, we’ve never really celebrated triumphs. Sure, there’s Peru’s Independence, even if it was largely engineered by Argentinians and Venezuelans who wanted to ensure their own freedom. There is the Combat of May the 2nd, where joint Peruvian and Chilean forces, around thirteen years before troubles related to bird excrement made them face each other in war, fought off the Spaniards and finished securing their status as independent nations. We won both wars against Ecuador, in the forties and the nineties.
Yet, the war we commemorate the most is precisely the one we lost, our greatest loss perhaps. The War of the Pacific, 1879–1883. A war we essentially found ourselves tossed into and for which we suffered the worst casualties. However, myths emerged from this loss. Heroes who gave their all for their country, even if it was all for naught.
That’s our myth. That’s what shaped us. We’re not likely to win at much—we’re a third-world country; we have many resources (once guano, now gold, natural gas, several species of fish and many more) but don’t know how to make the best of them; the country incorporates several cultures (direct descendants of the Quechuas, whose rulers were known as Incas, the Aimara people of the Andes, and many, many cultures in the rainforest; all with their own customs and languages) and we don’t know how to include everyone. We can’t even agree on fighting against sexism even as more and more women and girls are dying (in the days since I finished the first draft, Eyvi Ágreda, burned alive in a bus by an unrequited suitor, succumbed to her wounds). We have anything but unity, but as long as we give our all, we will achieve something.
No—we do have unity. It’s our national team. It’s not the one in a sport we’re particularly gifted at—we’ve had better results in chess, in surfing, and in volleyball. We’re not Uruguay nor Brazil, let alone Argentina: all places where football brilliance seems to be in the air. Yet we insist. It’s the national sport. We watch it religiously. We donned European jerseys in order to follow the Champions League. None of our players have ever really made it in the top tier, and if they have, they haven’t replicated that success here. Just ask two random Peruvians their thoughts on Claudio Pizarro.
Even if we’re not the kind of country whose player list gets a graphic in an international news outlet, we don’t stop believing we might get there. We just need to push through.
That’s exactly what Paolo Guerrero does on the field.
Born on January 1, 1984, he’s never been in the greatest tournament in his sport nor has he ever cheered for his country in it. He didn’t get to play in his local club, Alianza Lima, since Bayern Munich took him in at 18. He spent four years there, then six at Hamburg. He became, alongside Pizarro, Farfán, and Vargas, one of the Fantastic Four, our players with the greatest international presence. However, they weren’t enough to see us through to Germany 2006 or South Africa 2010. Sure, Guerrero was our best player at the 2007 Copa América. But his hot temperament, constantly flaring after being fouled, meant he was always close to a red card.
Yet there was always something remarkable about him. He is devoted to community works, never forgetting where he came from. His 2011 visit to little Romina Cornejo, who was left tetraplegic following a robbery attempt on her grandparents, was welcomed by everyone and began cementing his role as a charismatic, thoughtful leader. Putting celebrity gossip reporter Magaly Medina in jail following a defamation case is seen by many as one of his best goals.
(To this day, Magaly resents him. She alluded to karma when discussing his suspension, and had to be put on leave until the end of the World Cup given how “we need unity at the moment”).
Once maturity kicked in, he was bound to become our captain. And he did. He connected with his teammates more than Pizarro ever did, while keeping their respect. This is seen on the field and outside. When Christian Cueva was at risk of losing the coach’s good graces at Sao Paulo FC, it was Paolo who called him to get himself together. Years earlier, when several players went out to party to celebrate a tie against Brazil, only to lose to Ecuador (the Golf Los Inkas scandal), Pizarro simply said he wasn’t the team’s nanny.
Alongside Ricardo Gareca, the coach whose goal denied us Mexico 86 only to take us to glory 32 years later, Paolo is both the symbol of the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. At 34, he’ll be too old for Qatar. He’d only have one chance but that felt okay—he was clearing the way for the rest. He is the model Renato Tapia, the 22-year-old Feyenoord midfielder locally known as “the captain of the future,” will follow.
Then came the benzoylecgonine. It was in the urine sample he took at La Bombonera, following a remarkable performance despite a goalless result for both sides. It made no sense to anyone.
He lawyered up quickly. Blamed contaminated coca tea (not the drug; it’s a perfectly legal beverage we Peruvians drink, especially in high areas like Cuzco, although you can also drink it as your usual tea). Argued the sanction with FIFA. We were nervous. Bewildered. It was unfair to deny Paolo, our captain, his World Cup.
In the meantime, we had the playoffs. No World Cup if we didn’t seize our chances. And so, we went to New Zealand. Goalless. It was to be decided here.
From here on out, we’re going to celebrate triumphs, not good enough attempts
We won 2-0. There are chronicles of that game around the internet. What I want to focus on is in the moment following the first goal. The Farfán one.
Jefferson Farfán had his own redemption path. Following a six-year stint at Schalke, he left the club at 30 to go to Al-Jazira, in the United Arab Emirates. By 2016, he’d become more known for his antics with starlets and family issues than for his football. As a result, Gareca quietly dumped him.
In October 2016 he rescinded his contract with Al-Jazira and signed with Lokomotiv Moscow. It wasn’t Germany, but it was Europe. He worked hard, gave up the gossip press and, eventually, Gareca called him up for the Bolivia and Ecuador games.
Yes, that game when we won for the first time in Quito and found ourselves in qualifying spots.
The goal against New Zealand could’ve been the crown of his recovery. His return to the player he was meant to be. Pizarro was too old and Vargas was out of shape. But maybe we could save half the Fantastic Four. Farfán had become proof.
And yet, he chose not to make it about him. He rose the shirt of the captain, absent in body but always with the team. Guerrero had taken the team to that moment. They’d take him to the World Cup. For Farfán, it was more personal—he was honoring his old school friend. Nobody knows the content of their conversations throughout the years, through Farfán’s rough patch. Maybe he owed it to him more than we’ll ever know. Either way, it will always be their goal.
The uphill road across our chests
On May 22, the day I was set to finish the conclusion of this piece’s first draft and Paolo got Gianni Infantino’s sympathy (all he could give him), the Federación Peruana de Fútbol (Peruvian Football Federation) uploaded a video for our group rivals. With subtitles in French, English, and Danish, it showed everything I have tried to put into words here, in two minutes. I had two options: give up putting my own feelings into words because of the perfect video, or let it guide me into a conclusion. I’m choosing the latter.
We haven’t had it easy. Our society is broken: between the many cultures, the discussions about whether racism still exists rage on nearly 500 years after the Spanish first set foot in this soil. Politics can get messy (let’s just say the current president is in charge due to a series of shady managements decisions made by his predecessor). The economy is rarely on our side (the only times we were actually great were in the lead-up to the Pacific War and the 1920s, and both times we lost it all—either by war or by the 1929 crash). Not even the obvious brings forth agreement. People are still discussing if sexism is systemic or if it’s just the work of a few madmen (it’s not).
Even the sport we love has given us sorrow. In 1987, the entire Alianza Lima team, on the way to winning the league, died in an airplane crash. A whole generation of players, several younger than 25, just gone. Many bodies were never recovered. It’s not my team, but the sorrow goes beyond colors.
No—it’s not that we haven’t had it easy. It’s never been fair. We love football, but we just don’t have what our neighbors have. Our faith is constantly crushed—teams are lost by either death or lack of continuity (the team who made the quarters in the 2007 U17 World Cup comes to mind—from them, only goalkeeper Pedro Gallese is playing in major tournaments 11 years later).
And when things seem to be looking up, our captain is banned. He gets a reduced sentence, everything is fine. Then we lose our voice. Daniel Peredo, who embodied our faith regardless of the hardships, won’t get to see his World Cup.
Picture getting a taste of something good, only to know you can’t have it. That’s how the reinstated sentence length, courtesy of the Court of Arbitration for Sport following two simultaneous appeals (one wanted the original 14-month ban reinstated, the other wanted to be cleared of all charges) back on May 14, right when we were happy Paolo was back to scoring, felt like. Our politicians are awful, the social climate is terrible, we just have the World Cup (already bittersweet given the unfairness of Peredo missing it) and now Paolo’s missing it too?
It sure is frustrating. It’s always been frustrating.
But, would it be us if it weren’t?
Peruvians have never had it easy. But precisely because of that, we’re ready to keep fighting. To keep pushing. Our best runners are the ones from the highlands. It’s not the best environment, but their bodies are used to that. As a result, they’re more prepared for the level trails of a typical marathon. When you’ve been through hell, purgatory gets easier.
So here we are. A country in crisis, with parties so weak the official one’s congressmen aren’t sure they’re the President’s allies. People are still suffering from the 2017 floods in the north: as of January, one thousand families were still homeless. Eyvi died at 22 following a near-month-long agony and she’s certainly not the only one to go through a feminicide, crime is constantly on the rise (Romina, the little girl mentioned above, eventually died in 2016). Our sole joy is the upcoming World Cup, and we weren’t to have our captain with us.
Yet, we were not afraid. And we are still confident. No one really thought we’d win, but we’re willing to put up a fight. The world is never fair, but we’ll still try. We’ll die trying, giving our all.
That’s who we are.
Postscriptum: It’s only just begun
On May 31st, a Swiss federal court allowed Paolo Guerrero to play the World Cup. The captain’s return, as expected, renewed local hopes.
But, once more, we can’t have joy without suffering. We played wonderfully, without ever giving up, in a way that bewildered the older generation and strengthened the younger one’s hope. That being said, the goal was elusive. Paolo suffered from the lack of professional training. Christian Cueva couldn’t bear the pressure of a penalty kick in the world’s greatest stage.
I could run back through the France game, where Kylian Mbappé sealed our fate in this World Cup. But the image I want to leave behind is the support given to Cueva after the failed penalty in the Denmark game. His teammates made sure he knew he wasn’t alone.
The federation’s sports director Juan Carlos Oblitas declared there’d be no official welcome home. The change wants to extend beyond the national team’s dynamic—from here on out, we’re going to celebrate triumphs, not “good enough attempts”. It seems to go against our usual mindset, but then again, our usual mindset used to be to place impossible bets on “when Peru will make it to the World Cup,” so some shaking up is appreciated.
The general feeling, following the sorrow of what could’ve been and the appreciation for this team, is the feeling that this is only the beginning. Next year, we have the Copa América, and then the road to Qatar.
Maybe we won’t have to wait 36 years again.
That would mean the world to us.