LIMA, Peru — The thousands of fans arrived at the Estadio Nacional as a sea of red and white.
For more than an hour, they had paraded through the avenues of central Lima, dressed in their national team jerseys, blowing their vuvuzelas and pushing their children ahead of them in strollers. Now, after filing inside Peru’s national stadium, they sang Peru’s national anthem, waved Peru’s flag and hoped — against the longest of odds — that their festive display of national camaraderie would not be in vain.
For a week, their energies, and much of Peru’s attention, has been focused on the case of Paolo Guerrero, the star striker who helped lead his nation to its first World Cup in 36 years but now seems all but certain to miss the tournament because of a doping ban. Commentators, the national team coach and even Peru’s president had taken up Guerrero’s cause.
But on Sunday, it was the fans who wanted to be heard. “Pardon Paolo!” read one handwritten sign. “I want my captain at the World Cup,” said another.
“Thirty-three million Peruvians know that Guerrero is very important,” said Willy Suárez, 48, a technology project manager who brought 18 family members to the rally. “He is an example of perseverance and professionalism.”
In Peru, where the government declared a public holiday last November to celebrate the country’s qualification for Russia, the team’s success — and its first World Cup berth since 1982 — has led to a surge in national pride. But for the past week, the story’s implications have led the national mood to toggle between anger and sadness, optimism and despair. Television newscasts shifted from reporting on the political rebuilding of a country whose president recently abruptly resigned, and radio stations kept commentators on the air around the clock with analysis and predictions of the consequences for Guerrero and the national team.
The emotional swings began after Guerrero, 34, learned last Monday that the Court of Arbitration for Sport had extended his drug suspension, which was about to end, well into next year. The case began with a positive test late last year for a cocaine metabolite, but a series of disciplinary rulings — an initial one-year ban was reduced to six months by FIFA, and then increased again to 14 by CAS last week — have left Guerrero and his countrymen battling a ticking clock to save their World Cup dreams.
Over the weekend, Guerrero confirmed reports that he would fly to Switzerland with his lawyer and the head of Peru’s soccer federation to press a last-ditch appeal in a face-to-face meeting with FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino.
In Lima, Peruvians have latched on to his contention that his doping positive was an accident, the result of coca residue in a cup of tea he used to calm his stomach before an important match. He and others have pointed to CAS’s acknowledgment that he gained no competitive advantage from the drugs in his system; the coach of the national team, the Argentine Ricardo Gareca, defended Guerrero as “innocent” and called his suspension “a tragedy”; and Peru’s newly appointed president, Martin Vizcarra, ordered the Peruvian embassy in Zurich to assist Guerrero with his appeal to Switzerland’s supreme court.
“This ruling sanctions an alleged negligence with a totally disproportionate penalty,” Vizcarra said.
On Monday, even some of Peru’s World Cup opponents joined the chorus. In a letter released by FIFPro, the global players union, the captains of the national teams of Australia, Denmark and France — who will play Peru in the group stage of the World Cup — registered “an urgent request for clemency.” Writing to the FIFA Council, the players asked FIFA to “temporarily interrupt the ban imposed” on Guerrero “in the interest of fairness and proportionality.”
The rules, however, are clear. While CAS agreed that Guerrero had not ingested the substance to gain a performance enhancing benefit, it said he “bore some degree of fault or negligence” in allowing it to enter his system. Under those circumstances, global doping rules require athletes to be banned for between one and two years.
Guerrero’s lawyers now have the uphill task of convincing Switzerland’s highest court to overturn the suspension, but the court could do that only if it finds that the legal process was abused.
Before Sunday’s rally in central Lima, the home of Guerrero’s mother in the southern district of Chorrillos had served as a gathering place for Guerrero’s supporters. Signs and letters of support were taped to the front of the house. Visitors delivered bouquets of flowers, and children decorated the garage doors with drawings and messages to Guerrero: “Be Strong Paolo, We Are With You!” and “#9 is #1.”
Guerrero’s sister in-law, Carmen Zubiate, has become the curator of the overflowing display. On Friday, she carried a roll of tape to add new submissions to the collage.
“They have come from all corners of the country,” said Zubiate, 46, who is married to Guerrero’s older brother. “All we can do now, like my mother-in law says, is to pray together.”
A few blocks away, dust had settled on the geraniums planted in a wooden box that read “Paolo With You in Moscow.” Alfredo Díaz, 72, painted the box, which decorates the front of his house, where his daughter operates a small restaurant out of the garage. On Friday, he cupped his hands over his face in sorrow and said he was in mourning over Guerrero’s case, as if he had lost a loved one.
“I feel like crying because I feel it in my heart,” Diaz said. “We all do.”
Guerrero has protested his innocence from the start, and he did so again after last week’s ruling extended his ban. In an interview with The Times on Friday, he lamented that “my dream has been stolen, for something I didn’t do.”
“I want to thank them,” he said of the Peruvians who have taken up his cause. “They are trying to comfort me. But I’m so sad. Football is my life, my passion. And the World Cup is my biggest dream in football. Now I can’t go.”
That same mix of loss and hope was in the air in Lima on Sunday, when thousands marched a little over half a mile from a large park in central Lima to the national stadium. The fans had been encouraged by news media reports that Guerrero and the head of Peru’s soccer federation were planning to fly to Switzerland for a meeting with Infantino.
But FIFA’s June 4 deadline to register World Cup rosters has left Guerrero, and Peru, a narrowing window. Many here refuse to believe that the CAS decision is nonreversible, and others cling to the thin hope that FIFA will issue some sort of late pardon.
Guerrero, in a farewell video posted online before he boarded a plane for Switzerland, did his best to boost hopes that the trip would succeed.
“A sign of hope, an opportunity has been presented,” he said. “I hope to return from Switzerland with good news.”
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