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Peru’s long-awaited World Cup party hits frenzy with return of Paolo Guerrero

Fans of Peru railled in Moscow before the World Cup’s opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Peru will play its first match Saturday in Saransk. (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

LIMA, Peru — When Peru beat New Zealand in a two-leg playoff in November to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1982, Carlos Tello knew it was time to change his wedding plans.

“We were going to have a huge ceremony, with 300 guests, in 2019,” the 38-year-old biologist from Lima said. “Then we were going to vacation in the Caribbean to get a bit of sun.”

Instead, with the enthusiastic support of his fiancee, Fanny Cornejo, the couple brought their nuptials forward a year, to this past Saturday, and scaled down the event to include only their closest friends and relatives, allowing them to spend the savings on a honeymoon of a very different kind: watching Peru in Russia.

“It was a no-brainer,” Tello insisted. “I was 2 the last time Peru played in a World Cup, and who knows how old I will be the next time — or if there even is a next time?”

The couple’s story epitomizes the World Cup fever that has gripped this Andean nation after nearly four decades of watching enviously from the sideline as neighbors Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia; arch frenemy Chile; and of course Brazil competed in the world’s most popular sporting event.

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For a soccer-crazed South American nation of 31 million, the pain of that serial underachievement has been unbearable, particularly in a society whose self-esteem has been battered by a wave of corruption scandals that have discredited numerous public institutions, particularly Congress and the presidency.

The triumph over New Zealand triggered a national catharsis. Jesus memes of the team’s Argentine coach, Ricardo Gareca, all but broke the Internet, and large numbers of Peruvians, like Tello and Cornejo, are expected to make the once-in-a-lifetime odyssey to see Peru’s three group matches, beginning Saturday against Denmark in Saransk. If Peru advances to the knockout phase, there is a good chance that President Martín Vizcarra will declare more national holidays like the impromptu one that followed World Cup qualification.

The national delirium reached a boiling point last week when Peru’s talismanic captain and all-time leading goal scorer, Paolo Guerrero, received a last-minute reprieve from a doping ban that would have forced him to sit out the tournament in Russia, the 34-year-old’s first and probably only chance to play in a World Cup.

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The two-time top scorer in South America’s prestigious Copa America tournament and standout with Brazil’s biggest club, Flamengo, had faced a 14-month suspension after testing positive last fall for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine and its key ingredient, coca. The news rocked Peru, where the striker’s do-or-die attitude on the pitch and down-to-earth charm off it has made him an icon.

His ban had been widely viewed as draconian, fueling a burning sense of injustice in Peru just as it began its World Cup preparations.

Jorge Yamamoto, a psychology professor specializing in collective well-being, ascribes the lionization of Gareca and Guerrero to the same mass yearning for a savior that has sometimes driven Peruvian voters to elect populist autocrats.

“The World Cup has activated a different part of Peruvians’ brains right now, a part they do not normally get to use,” Yamamoto said. “Peruvians have gotten so accustomed to things not working, crooked politicians and failure, that just classifying for the World Cup has created a kind of mass addictive affect.”

Some have blamed Peru’s past soccer failures on the players’ supposed psychological brittleness. Others cite the alleged mismanagement of the Peruvian Football Federation. Manuel Burga, a former long-serving federation president whose disapproval rating once hit 93 percent, was acquitted in a federal court in Brooklyn in December of taking bribes in a case brought by the Justice Department as part of its probe into corruption within FIFA.

Guerrero’s case, however, could not be more different, with Peruvians almost unanimously rooting for his acquittal.

Both FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, and the World Anti-Doping Agency, which prosecuted Guerrero, accepted his explanation that an infusion he had consumed at the team hotel while preparing to play Argentina had been contaminated with traces of coca tea, a mildly stimulating beverage common in the Andes.

Guerrero’s lawyers even cited archaeological findings that Inca mummies also tested positive for benzoylecgonine, disproving the notion that the player had necessarily consumed cocaine, a 19th-century invention.

And the captains of Australia, Denmark and France, the teams drawn in Peru’s World Cup group, wrote an open letter insisting that it would be “plainly wrong to exclude” the nation’s most dangerous player “from what should be a pinnacle of his career.”

“The case shows how the WADA code can trample over the fundamental rights of footballers,” says Alex Duff, of FIFPro, the international players’ union.

Finally, on May 30, Switzerland’s Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over judgments by the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, ruled that the 14-month ban should be temporarily lifted to allow Guerrero to play in Russia.

“It was very emotional, incredible, unreal even,” Tello said. “You always see Guerrero fighting to the end, that it means so much to him to play for his country. That is why he so loved.”

Peru is unbeaten in its past 15 games and ranked 11th in the FIFA world rankings — a high point reached before Guerrero’s return to spearhead the attack — and has the potential to make a splash in the tournament.

In a warmup game June 3, La Blanquirroja (“The White and Red”) beat Saudi Arabia, 3-0, before a capacity crowd of 18,000 in the Swiss town of St. Gallen. Most of the crowd appeared to be Peruvians on a stopover on the way to Russia, turning the small stadium into a raucous sea of the national colors.

Despite the rust from not having played in eight months, Guerrero scored twice, sending his compatriots into a frenzy.

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