For Peruvians, the excitement should be almost unbearable. Thirty-six years after their last World Cup, their team has finally qualified for another.
Instead, the tournament is shrouded in controversy before it’s even begun. Peru’s star player and captain, Paolo Guerrero, looks set to miss out on the competition after a six-month drug ban he had already served was last week extended to 14 months. To add to the striker’s pain, the punishment handed to him by the Court of Arbitration for Sport far outweighs his crime.
The issue first arose after a qualifier against Argentina last year, in which Peru secured a vital 0-0 draw. Yet after Guerrero tested positive for benzoylecgonine, the main metabolite of cocaine, FIFA handed him a one-year ban which would have ruled him out of the World Cup.
The former Bayern Munich man maintained his innocence, pleading to world football’s governing body that he unknowingly drank tea which had been brewed in the same pot as a traditional Peruvian coca-leaf tea, hence the presence of benzoylecgonine.
FIFA heard his appeal and, owing to the low levels of the substance detected in his urine, reduced the sentence to six months. Guerrero, FIFA admitted, had no intention of enhancing his performance and would therefore be free to play in Russia.
At the beginning of May the 34-year-old made his return to professional football, playing in three games for club side Flamengo and scoring an excellent header against Chapecoense in the Brazilian league.
The Word Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), however, felt the penalty was too lenient. They submitted an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), asking for the ban to be extended to the maximum possible sentence of 24 months.
CAS, like FIFA, accepted that the positive test was caused by the tea and that Guerrero didn’t mean to ingest the substance, while also recognising that he wasn’t trying to enhance his performance.
But according to a statement released after the hearing, CAS upheld WADA’s appeal on the grounds that “the Player did bear some fault or negligence, even if it was not significant”. The ban was increased to 14 months.
The World Cup hopes of a nation had been dashed once more – the man they call the ‘Depredador’, their all-time leading goalscorer, will almost certainly be watching on from the sofa as his team-mates fly the nation’s flag in Russia.
The reaction in Peru has been understandably fraught. The forward’s mother, Doña Peta, even insinuated that Guerrero’s compatriot and one-time Bayern club-mate Claudio Pizarro and his father had a hand in the whole affair.
“My son is destroyed”, she told RPP Notícias. “They are cutting off his legs because they have other interests… Claudio Pizarro. Since Bayern Munich they have harmed my son, Claudio Pizarro’s dad told him to go and find another team.”
She later retracted the comments in a radio interview, telling the presenter that, “Sometimes in anger we say many things, but this has nothing to do with it.” Doña Peta then continued on a more optimistic note, adding, “I have hope that he will play the World Cup, I believe in the justice of God.”
Guerrero, likewise, has vowed to continue the battle, although the chances of a reprieve are getting slimmer by the day.
On 22 May, the 34-year-old travelled to Zurich to meet FIFA president Gianni Infantino, accompanied by the head of the Peruvian FA. No solution was found, and after the meeting FIFA told Reuters that, “Gianni Infantino expressed his deep understanding of Guerrero’s disappointment in not being able to join the Peruvian squad at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.”
“However,” they continued, “the FIFA President also stressed the fact that the sanction had been imposed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, after an appeal lodged against a decision of an independent FIFA judicial body.”
As a last resort, a legal team is looking to have CAS’s decision suspended by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland. Even the President of Peru, Martín Vizcarra, felt the need to get involved, vowing that the government “will give support” to Guerrero’s lawyers and that, “our chancellery and embassy [in Switzerland] are at their disposition.”
FIFPro, the international players’ union, have also weighed in on the case. A statement from the organisation read, “FIFPro considers the ban unfair and disproportionate, and the latest example of a World Anti-Doping Code that too often leads to inappropriate sanctions, especially when it has been established that there was no intent to cheat.”
It’s hard to disagree. WADA exists to deal with drug use in sport; that’s to say, the use of substances with the intention of gaining an unfair advantage over the competition. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Guerrero took cocaine. What bearing does that have on his capacity to perform on the pitch?
A 2006 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine is fairly emphatic. “Despite the popular myth,” it reads, “Cocaine does not really enhance performance… in particular, several studies have shown that cocaine has no beneficial effect on running times and reduces endurance performance.”
WADA, therefore, is acting outside of its remit. If a certain drug has a demonstrably negative effect on an athlete’s output, then it shouldn’t be regulated by an anti-doping organisation. Recreational drugs are a matter for the judicial systems of individual countries.
If Guerrero did take cocaine, would it not be better for the sporting authorities to help rather than persecute him? Is prohibiting athletes from performing their professional duties really the best way to stop them using social drugs?
In an act of great sportsmanship, Peru’s rivals in World Cup Group C have come out in support of the man who has the potential to damage their chances of success in Russia.
Mile Jedinak, Hugo Lloris and Simon Kjaer, captains of Australia, France and Denmark respectively, all signed a letter to FIFA on 21 May in which they say that, “Given the exceptional circumstances which pertain to this matter, we respectfully ask the FIFA Council to show compassion with Paolo Guerrero… in our view, it would be plainly wrong to exclude him from what should be a pinnacle of his career.”
With the matter still unresolved, Peru and their manager Ricardo Gareca need to plan for a tournament without their leader and difference-maker, the one real top-class player in a capable but unspectacular squad.
They have, though, already shown they can cope in his absence. Owing to the initial FIFA ban, Guerrero missed the play-off with New Zealand that secured qualification. In the first leg, La Blanquirroja played with Jefferson Farfán as their most advanced player; in the second, Raúl Ruidiaz led the line.
In their most recent friendlies against Croatia and Iceland, Farfán was once more used as the No.9, with Watford’s André Carrillo and diminutive playmaker Christian Cueva providing support in attack. Again it was successful, with Peru putting in two excellent performances, beating Croatia 2-0 and Iceland 3-1.
If Guerrero doesn’t return – and that now seems the most likely outcome – the question will be whether the Peru squad can maintain their emotional equilibrium in the middle of the media storm and uncertainty which has surrounded them. France are the clear favourites to win the group, so their first match against Denmark could prove hugely important in deciding who progresses as runner-up.
Gareca – who has done a wonderful job putting together a balanced, resolute and hard-working team – will have his work cut out to put his players’ minds at rest and get them fully focused on the task at hand.