On May 30, 2018, the Peruvian soccer squad boarded a plane to Zurich. The chartered flight was loaded with twenty-three players, their technical team, and—we heard over and over—the dreams of a nation. It was the first stop en route to the World Cup in Russia. “Peru is ready to face any team in the world,” said Ricardo Gareca, the Argentinian coach credited with getting Peru this far. But Paolo Guerrero—El Capitán, Peru’s all-time leading goalscorer—did not fly with them. His absence made headlines: Peru was going to play a World Cup for the first time in thirty-six years, with the national star banned from the field. It had been a fraught road to Russia.
Fourteen hours later, as their flight landed in Switzerland, the players heard the news: Guerrero’s ban had been frozen. Back in Peru, some 30 million fans woke up to the same revelation. It was neither an acquittal nor a declaration of innocence. But a suspended sentence had never felt so much like redemption. Last year, during Peru’s qualifying campaign, El Capitán, a forward who plays for Flamengo in Brazil, tested positive for a cocaine metabolite. FIFA and the World Anti-Doping Agency had been hard on Guerrero, but Christina Kiss, a judge of the Swiss federal Supreme Court, cleared him to play. Judge Kiss read letters from the team captains of Australia, Denmark, and France voicing their solidarity with Guerrero. Judge Kiss considered that at thirty-four, El Capitán had only this one chance to play in a World Cup that would be “without any doubt the crowning glory of his career.” Guerrero and his lawyers, proclaiming his innocence as they fought the charges, argued that preventing him from leading the team in Russia might constitute “irreparable damage.” Irreparable damage: shattered dreams cannot be glued back together.
The day Judge Kiss announced her ruling in Lausanne, the principal at a school in El Callao, a coastal province north of Lima, Peru, waited until the students had finished singing the national anthem to deliver the good news over the public address system. Hundreds of kids at school assembly cheered. Drivers on their morning commute honked their horns. Fathers called their sons on the phone to rejoice. A few hours later, a scheduled earthquake drill spontaneously became one giant street party.
The last time this country had cheered for la Blanquirroja, as the national side is known, in a World Cup was in 1982. One third of Peruvians had not even been born then, but they all remember that the last time had been a catastrophe: June 22, a Tuesday. Peru had drawn its first two matches in the Cup, with Cameroon and Italy, and needed to defeat Poland to advance from the group stage. The first half ended with the score 0-0. By the eighty-third minute, the European team was winning 5-0. Just before the game’s end, Peru scored a solitary goal. It was too little, too late.
“The Peruvian defeat hurts again because, once more, the syndromes that disconcert and plague us appear: it seems that the Peruvian players have no soul, no testicles or blood,” wrote the sociologist and writer Abelardo Sánchez León at the time. “We can’t continue accepting that this way of playing football corresponds to the idiosyncrasy of our people.” Thirty-six years later, in a detailed history of the national team, the poet José Carlos Yrigoyen recalled that fateful match: “When the endless colorful carnival that our TV sets were broadcasting suddenly stopped, we turned them off. In front of us, the dark screen returned the reflection of a horrible, degraded country, bathed in blood.”
Yrigoyen’s image of a dark screen is not merely a metaphor for pain and sorrow. The 1980s in Peru were defined by the long, fierce war waged by the Maoist guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) against the government. Authoritarian rule thwarted a budding democracy, and the inflation rate soared first into the hundreds of percent and then the thousands. The country descended into a spiral of crisis, death, corruption, chaos.
Soccer did not provide relief or escape. In 1987, an entire professional team—the country’s top club at the time—plunged to their deaths when their plane crashed into the ocean. In the disaster, the national squad lost its coach and some of its best players. Hope drowned with them. Peruvians kept their heads and their expectations low.
“Our people, and our football, always had to play on a field that’s tilted uphill,” says a video produced by the Peruvian Football Association. Even as the country slowly recovered its pride and prosperity, a new generation that grew up without car bombs and blackouts and long queues to buy milk and sugar could not picture a winning streak.
But a retired player from a country on which the soccer gods have smiled more kindly, Argentina, could. Ricardo Gareca, who in his playing days scored the goal for his country that kept Peru out of the 1986 World Cup, took on the challenge to resurrect the Peruvian team in 2015. The new manager made no promises but made clear that he trusted the local talent. His leadership style was cerebral and quiet. Every time he spoke to the media, he was, in fact, addressing the locker room. In a country of skeptics, he remained a believer. In a country where people watch matches with all their hearts, Gareca was photographed hundreds of times with a finger to his temples, urging his players to think. ¡Pensá! he asked of a team of warriors. That gesture became shorthand for doing things right. Publicists and meme-makers recognized the symbolic potential—¡Pensá! Think!—and 34 million people started to think along.
Peruvians were already expert mathematicians. They knew to count how many goals they needed during South America’s marathon qualifying competition to remain optimistic. “Lo matemáticamente posible,” they said—it’s mathematically possible. They were used to taking out their calculators to see if they had permission to dream. And yet, a year before qualifying, 82 percent of Peruvians thought that the idea of their team’s playing in the World Cup finals in Russia was impossible.
In Gareca’s blueprint for a winning team, El Capitán was central. Guerrero has long been hailed by taxi drivers, soccer moms, sportscasters, and academics alike as brave, selfless, and tenacious; and after his ban, he still is. The only person who questioned Guerrero’s character in public was suspended from her job: the controversial TV presenter Magaly Medina did a little victory dance on air, when news broke that Guerrero might be banned from the World Cup. On Twitter, she remained unapologetic. Her bosses at Latina TV released a statement that said:
At times like these, when Peruvians must be united as a single team, Latina and Magaly Medina have mutually agreed to temporarily withdraw her from the air, due to disagreements over how we see and treat very relevant issues for our channel and the country.
Two weeks later, the Peruvian Congress passed a law that declared celebrating the “Day of Peruvian Football” on the third Saturday of June a matter of keen “national interest.”
The economist Hugo Ñopo points out that all six of the goals Guerrero scored during Peru’s qualifying games came when the team was losing—“when the playing field was uphill.” In Gamarra, Lima’s garment district, of the six million jerseys of the national team that have been sold this year, half bore Guerrero’s number nine. Business owners there project extra sales of $615 million thanks to the World Cup. Another entrepreneur is offering coffins and caskets with World Cup motifs for fans.
On the streets, Venezuelan hawkers—recent immigrants fleeing the crisis in their country—have traded their usual yellow-and-blue baseball caps for the white-and-red ones of their adoptive country. I, who am also an immigrant, own not one but two Blanquirroja jerseys. This isn’t a betrayal of our native lands, but our way of saying thank you to Peru: we are here with you, we will suffer and celebrate together. I’ve lived in Peru for many years and am married to a Peruvian, but my country, Mexico, has played in the World Cup for as long as I can remember. Every four years, we know we are going—and we assume we are going to come home defeated. It’s refreshing to be around optimism tied to hard-earned achievement. In present-day Peru, children debate whether los Guerreros can make it to the quarter-finals in Russia, and grown men point out that, in theory, there’s a 50-50 chance of that happening.
This may be far-fetched. But I don’t have the heart to say or think otherwise. Part of the seduction of football is its mythologies. In the case of Peru, this is the return of an underdog against all odds, a tale of redemption. Of redemption, and of suffering. Last Saturday, when Gareca’s men went out to face Denmark in Saransk, as many as 30,000 Peruvians had descended on the smallest of the host cities of the World Cup. “Peru Invades Russia. Well, At Least Many of Its Fans Have,” reported The New York Times. Mordovia Arena roared with the national anthem and some 8,000 miles west, in Lima, thousands more stood up and sang along in front of TVs bought specially for the occasion. Paolo Guerrero was not on the opening lineup. By the time he stepped on the field, as a substitute in the sixty-second minute, Peru was losing 0-1.
“Si no sufrimos no vale,” was a catchphrase of Daniel Peredo, perhaps Peru’s most beloved sportscaster, who died not long after commentating on the match, last year, in which we at last qualified for Russia. Without suffering, it’s not worth it.
Elda Cantú is a Mexican journalist and editor living in Lima, Peru. She teaches politics and international relations at the Universidad ESAN. (June 2018)