With the World Cup less than a week away and with the Washington Capitals currently hoisting the Stanley Cup, I’d like to switch gears from hockey and discuss another one of my great loves: soccer. While it’s disappointing that USA did not qualify, there is another country whose success story has intrigued me, and I will vehemently and unabashedly be rooting for Peru.
The story of Peru’s World Cup qualification is a complicated one involving many factors. Possibly the biggest game changer for Peru was the hiring of former Argentinian football star, Ricardo Gareca, who ironically robbed Peru of a World Cup berth in 1986. Since being appointed manager of the Peruvian National Team in March of 2015, Gareca has coached Peru to a third-place finish in the 2015 Copa América and to the quarterfinals of the Copa América Centenario. Gareca has brought a sense of stability and confidence to the Peruvian National Team that hasn’t been seen since their last golden era in the 1970s.
Succeeding in the South American qualifications is no easy feat given the intense rivalries and fierce competition between countries, and only about half of the teams go on to qualify for the World Cup.
The road to revival has been a rough one for Peru. By the seventh round of qualifications, Peru had won only one game, drawn one, and lost five. However, a huge turning point came unexpectedly in August of 2017 after an appeal by the Chilean FA against Nelson Cabrera cost Bolivia two games, effectively ending Bolivia's run for the World Cup and unintentionally giving Peru the boost they so desperately needed. Bolivia's 2-0 win against Peru was reversed.
This appeal produced a ripple effect that Chile had not foreseen and Peru later ousted them from qualifications in the last round of games on goal difference to gain a playoff spot against New Zealand in November 2017. Chile and Peru have a rivalry that parallels that of the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. It's easy to imagine how extremely thrilling this must have felt for Peruvian fans, especially after the defiant message the Chileans left behind on the locker room wall when they beat Peru 4-3 during a qualification match in Lima back in 2015.
Since then, with the help of manager Gareca, as well as their captain and top goal-scorer, Paolo Guerrero, Peru has rocketed their way to Russia having not lost a game since November 2016. With 14 consecutive undefeated games, Gareca's team is the first to achieve this record since 1930. Guerrero is, without a doubt, the soul of the Peruvian National Team, scoring an all-time 34 goals for Peru, and has been integral in Peru's epic resurgence.
But, what was cooking up to be a fairy tale ending for Peru was marred just weeks after qualifying when Guerrero failed a drug test after the 0-0 draw with Argentina back in October. He tested positive for cocaine, but has maintained his innocence claiming it was tainted tea. He was initially suspended for six months, which was later extended to 14 months for negligence on the part of Guerrero, meaning he would be unable to play in the World Cup. For obvious reasons, this cast quite a shadow over Peru's first World Cup qualification since 1982.
The support surrounding Guerrero during his suspension and subsequent appeal has been astounding. Not only were the Peruvian fans in an uproar, protesting in Guerrero's favor, but the captains of Peru's Group C opponents from Denmark, Australia, and France wrote to FIFA asking them to lift the ban against Guerrero. On May 31, it was decided that the extension was “unjustified” and “provisionally deprived of effect.” Guerrero has since been permitted to play in the World Cup.
With Guerrero reinstated to his rightful place, the joy for Peru is now complete. Alongside the formidable talent of teammates Edison Flores, Christian Cueva, and Jefferson Farfán, to name a few, Peru is going to be a difficult team to beat.
The road to the World Cup has been filled with obstacles for Peru, but finally, after 36 years, some hope has been injected back into the country whose greatest passion has always been football, and Peruvian fans from all over the world will flood the stadiums in Russia in the coming weeks to support their beloved team.