- BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer
- Peru's Paolo Guerrero, right, and teammate Andre Carrillo warm up during Peru's official training on the eve of the group C match between Peru and Denmark at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Mordovia Arena in Saransk, Russia, Friday, June 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
By BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer
SARANSK, Russia (AP) — The mere presence of striker Paolo Guerrero on Peru’s national team could have been a major distraction.
Any Peruvian success in Russia might have been tainted if opponents made a fuss that Guerrero, Peru’s all-time leading scorer, had no business playing in the World Cup after failing a drug test last year.
Instead, the situation has been largely diffused by a show of solidarity among players in and outside of Peru, including the captains of the other teams in Group C — France, Denmark and Australia.
“It was an important example of support and solidarity by all captains,” Peru defender Alberto Rodriguez said Friday after the Incas’ last training session before the Inca’s opener Saturday against Denmark. “Having him here — of course, it’s great and important.”
Coach Ricardo Gareca said his side wanted to “express our gratitude to all of the captains” who had written to FIFA earlier this year, supporting a lifting of Guerrero’s suspension so the 34-year-old former Bayern Munich attacker could make what might be the only World Cup appearance of his career.
“It was a great demonstration of solidarity with our national team,” Gareca said. “And this has been very positive for Guerrero.”
A late-hour decision by a Swiss judge froze Guerrero’s suspension in time for him to rejoin Peru and his Brazilian club team Flamengo late last month. And FIFA didn’t immediately challenge the ruling because Peru’s opponents made their support for Guerrero clear.
Guerrero, who didn’t speak with media Friday, has proclaimed his innocence all along. He has said he failed his drug test because he drank tea from a cup tainted with coca leaf residue in a Lima hotel. Officials with FIFPro, a global soccer players’ union, also opposed Guerrero’s suspension. If any players with Peru’s scheduled or potential World Cup opponents disagreed with the union on that front, they haven’t been inclined to say so publicly.
Denmark captain Simon Kjaer offered a terse response to a question before Friday evening’s training about his and fellow Group C captains’ support for Guerrero.
“Whether he played or not wasn’t really essential. We just wanted to support him. We gave him support and that was all we could do,” Kjaer said. “I think he will play, that’s for sure, and that’s fine.”
Now the biggest questions surrounding him seem to be how mentally and physically fit he’ll be after a long, emotional legal struggle to be allowed to play — not to mention how he’ll handle the pressure of being the most accomplished member of a passionately followed national side playing in the World Cup for the first time in 36 years .
“Paolo is playing very well since playing with the national team,” Gareca said. “I know he’s very, very happy and I think he’s very well situated.
Gareca added that Guerrero is “very, very fit,” and “really is ready to play.”
Guerrero scored twice in Peru’s penultimate friendly before the World Cup , but that was against Saudi Arabia, the same side that yielded five goals against Russia in the World Cup’s curtain raiser on Thursday night.
Whether Guerrero will see action in the team’s opening match isn’t yet certain, at least not outside the team.
Gareca wouldn’t commit to playing Guerrero against Denmark, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything.
“I always wait until the last second to decide” the lineup, Gareca said. “It’s difficult to decide.”
Guerrero was Peru’s top scorer in World Cup qualifying, netting five in the campaign.
And he is a fan favorite.
“He has a power to him. Everyone follows what he’s doing and whenever we’re losing, he keeps going and going,” said Angel Carranza, a 30-year-old Peru native who now lives in Dallas and traveled to Russia with tickets to two group matches. “You know, Guerrero, in Spanish, means warrior.”
AP Sports Writer Mauricio Savarese contributed.
This story has been corrected to show that the match against Saudi Arabia was Peru’s penultimate friendly before the World Cup, not the final one.