World Cup: Peru is back at the World Cup after 36-year absence and hopes for a long stay

No country has gone longer between World Cup appearances than Peru, which returns to soccer’s biggest stage this month after a 36-year absence. And the country hasn’t stopped celebrating since it qualified in November.

“It’s the best,” said midfielder Yoshimar Yotun, who plays in MLS for Orlando City. “For a football player on a national team, the best thing you can do is play in a World Cup and represent your country in front of the world.

“It’s an important point in my career and. … I have really accepted the idea that I’ll be in the World Cup.”

But some of that joy, which was celebrated with a national holiday the day after Peru qualified, was nearly wiped away by an inadvertent toast.

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Paolo Guerrero, Peru’s 34-year-old captain, was suspended last month by the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport for a failed drug test he blamed on te de coca, a popular centuries-old aromatic tea made from coca leaves he said was given to him last fall by a waiter at a hotel in Lima, the nation’s capital.

However, after the Peruvian team gathered to begin World Cup preparations, a Swiss supreme court judge ordered Guerrero’s 14-month ban frozen, clearing the forward to participate in the tournament. In her ruling the judge, Christina Kiss, took into account Guerrero’s age, Peru’s long absence from the World Cup and a letter signed by the captains of Peru’s three first-round opponents — France, Denmark and Australia — urging the suspension be set aside.

“As a result, Paolo Guerrero can take part in the next World Cup,” Kiss wrote in her eight-page judgment “without any doubt the crowning glory of his career.”

Peru's Paolo Guerrero, and Andre Carrillo, from left, react after Guerrero scored during a friendly soccer match between Saudi Arabia and Peru on Sunday.
(Gian Ehrenzeller / Associated Press )

That’s not the first time a court has issued a key ruling regarding Peru’s World Cup aspirations. During South American qualifying, the Court of Arbitration for Sport determined that Bolivia used an ineligible player against Peru in September 2016.

As a result, Peru’s loss in La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, became a victory, giving it the three points it needed to beat out Chile on goal differential and finish fifth in the South American tournament. That allowed the team to advance to an interconfederation playoff it won, earning the final ticket to Russia and the World Cup.

That also capped something of a soccer renaissance for Peru, which played in three World Cups between 1970 and 1982, reaching the quarterfinals in the first one and advancing to the second round eight years later.

That renaissance shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who was paying attention, though, since Peru played in the semifinals of two of the last three South American championships, with Guerrero leading the tournament in scoring both times.

Part of the turnaround can be credited to Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca, who took over in February 2015 and hasn’t seen his team lose in more than a year and half, registering victories over World Cup teams Iceland, Croatia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay along the way.

“We’re not going to the World Cup as the favorites,” said Yotun, 28, one of two MLS players on the Peruvian team. “It’s been a long time since the world has seen Peru on that stage. But we’re back. We have a very good system.

“We’re going back with a low profile. They don’t know us. Little by little we’re going to demonstrate what we can do.”

Doing that got a lot easier with the reinstatement of Guerrero, the national team’s all-time leader with 34 international goals and its active leader in international caps with 86. But Peru will only go as far as its well-organized back line, one that doesn’t feature any European-based players, can take it.

Renato Tapia, 22, who plays in the Netherlands for Feyenoord, helps out defensively as a holding midfielder and Sao Paulo’s Christian Cueva, 26, is a playmaking attacker.

With Guerrero back, though, anything seems possible for Peru.

“Yes it’s 36 years since they’ve been back the World Cup,” said former U.S. international Herculez Gomez, now a commentator for ESPN. “But they’ve got good enough players … this is a team that could surprise and get things going because of the talent they have.” | Twitter: @kbaxter11