Paolo Guerrero's Cup Of Tea And Peru's 26-Year Fight On Drugs And Soccer Relevance

It was June 22, 1982 and approximately 25,000 in attendance at Estadio Riazor in La Coruña, Spain. Perú was facing off against Poland in the final match in Group A. With an win or a tie, the Peruvian side would secure their place in the group stage alongside Italy. Peru looked to build on their success in 1978, as their globally-admired "flowing football" style earned them a place in the group stage and made many betting in the US to choose the Peruvians to pull out the win. 1982 would be the World Cup that would cement this generation's legacy.

Polish striker Wlodzimierz Smolarek scored a goal during the 55th minute, as the strike would serve as the opening salvo for an oncoming assault on Peru's defense. Poland would score four more goals against Peru, leaving Peruvian striker Guillermo La Rosa scoring the final goal of the match in the 83rd minute, with 5-1 as the final score. With two draws to its name previously, the defeat to the eventual third-place side would send La Blanquirroja home in just the first round.

The team would stay home for 26 more years.

America's 'War On Drugs'

Between 1982 to 2018, the world changed. President Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971 in the United States. Many of his efforts were derailed thanks to the Watergate scandal and his eventual resignation. It wasn’t until 1981 that President Ronald Reagan reinvigorated the War on Drugs and turned in into the mechanism it is today.

Reagan’s policies resulted in a variety of “zero tolerance” rules that are still shaping the United States. Even President Bill Clinton’s ideas, such as spending money on rehabilitation and prevention, failed at changing how the 'War on Drugs' affected everyday Americans. Instead, it shaped the way the United States interacts with the rest of the world, especially Perú.

The point of view propagated by the War on Drugs influenced every sector of American society. Naturally, this point of view would extend to sports, and the United States’ sphere of influence meant these views would influence policy worldwide.

In 2008, the United States government sent 990 members of its military to the region of Ayacucho, the capital city of Huamanga Province in Peru. Though their stated goal was to assist with humanitarian efforts, this only opened the door for increased military presence in Peru. Toward the end of 2016, the Peruvian province of Amazonas greenlit a new American military base in the region.

On WADA And 'Conflicts Of Interest'

The World Anti-Doping Agency was founded in 1999. Its mission is to ensure “a world where all athletes can compete in a doping-free environment.” WADA was actually formed after the International Olympic Committee’s Medical Commission failed to catch major doping issues during the Tour de France in 1998.

Despite its noble intentions, according to The Guardian, the efforts of sports cheats are far more successful than the efforts of anti-doping scientists. UK Anti-Doping, the body responsible for the random testing of UK athletes, has mentioned that it was to relax rules for recreational drugs that don’t increase sports stamina. This includes drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine.

When WADA was founded Barry McCaffrey, a four-star general who served as Bill Clinton’s Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said it was a “conflict of interest” for the IOC to create a body that would test athletes for doping while profiting from their performance.

Paolo Guerrero, The Prodigal Son

Born on January 1, 1984, Paolo Guerrero never saw his country attend a World Cup during his lifetime until now. He began his career playing for Alianza Lima at age 8, until he joined Bayern Munich in 2002. His career took him to reputable organizations like Hamburger SV in Germany and the legendary Corinthians squad in Brazil. However, the mark he's made as Peru's leading man helped put him in the world's spotlight.

Since his international debut in 2004, Guerrero leads Peru with 87 caps and is the nation's all-time top goal scorer with 34 goals. He's led Los Incas to four Copa América tournaments, including two third place finishes in 2011 and 2015, all while  finishing as top scorer in both tournaments. It is he, not Argentina's Lionel Messi, Uruguay's Luis Suarez or Chile's Alexis Sanchez, who is active all-time top scorer in the history of the Copa América tourney.

Guerrero. Messi. (Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

However, to get a better idea of how Perú feels about Guerrero, their side making it to the World Cup, and whether or not the country can expect a better image in the world of football, I spoke to Christian Hernani.

Hernani is a blue collar footballer. He has trained with Club Sportivo Cienciano, a second division side in the Peruvian Football League, for past year and a half. He's also works on staff in a hostel in Cusco, located near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range in southeastern Perú. Hernani comes from footballing bloodlines, as his uncle is also the nephew of Frank Palomino, who also played on the Peruvian national team. Hernani's perspective reflects the mindset of a generation of Peruvians who have never seen their nation represented on the world's largest stage. This moment matters.

“Peru’s qualification for this [World] Cup is very exciting for everyone, especially for me," reflected Hernani. It’s the first time I see my team in a World Cup and it gives me anecdotes that I can share with my children, and maybe even my grandchildren someday.”

Despite the fact that Perú plays in the World Cup this weekend, Guerrero has not only seen his career reach great heights, he’s making history as the first Peruvian to be nominated FIFA’s Ballon d’Or in 2015.

His career and persistence as a part of Perú’s national team has already made a mark on his people. Making it to the World Cup was already a source of great joy and pride for anyone who has been waiting for Perú to make it to the biggest sporting event on the planet for 26 lingering years.

The Infamous Cup Of Guerrero's Coca Tea 

As the legend says, Kuka was a beautiful woman who would play tricks on men. She was ordered killed, cut in half, and buried. But sacrificing her led to the birth of the coca plant. This became the coca leaf. It was prized for its medicinal benefits and was used for sacred rituals. It is said that South America has been cultivating coca leaves for about 8,000 years.

In modern Perú, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and northern Argentina and Chile, the leaf is used to cure altitude sickness, headaches, to provide energy, and for a variety of ailments. Despite this, the plant has been the subject of controversy. The United Nations listed it as a Schedule I drug in 1961, along with drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.

For Guerrero, it was simply a usual pairing to go into his tea.

“From a football point of view, Paolo Guerrero has displayed a lot of discipline in the [national] team and the teams he’s been a part of… his consistency has characterized him," Hernani spoke. "People in Peru and anywhere in the world are drawn to this. He’s shown a sense of responsibility within the team and outside of his country.”

What may seem like a well-deserved punishment from people who don’t understand the importance of coca leaves seems like an unfair punishment to people from the Andean region. On October 2017, Guerrero tested positive for benzoylecgonine, a compound found in coca leaves.

“The way this unfolded with Paolo, it seems like he might have had a very concentrated cup of coca tea," Hernani speculates. "Perhaps there were pills that influenced his results because we have to take into account that he was sick during the dates [when he was tested] for doping."

Prison wardens stand guard beside a graffiti depicting Peruvian football star Paolo Guerrero, as inmates from Peruvian jails take part in the First Inter-prison World Cup Russia 2018 tournament, at the prison in Huaral, a rural community 110 kilometers north of Lima on May 15, 2018. (Source: Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images)

Guerrero was banned by FIFA, but instead of giving up he decided he’d prove he wasn’t using cocaine. In response, he received support from opposing teams such as Australia, France and Denmark. It also helped that his country’s president, Martin Vizcarra also appealed to FIFA on his behalf.

“Paolo has been naive about this topic,” says Hernani. “When someone is doing so well, like he is, people always ask themselves what [that person] doing... Paolo has been very focused and perseverant. The coca leaf was very sacred. It was used to read people’s lives. It’s a ceremonial and important leaf.”

FIFA froze Guerrero’s ban during the World Cup, as it put Guerrero in a precarious position. Guerrero’s contract with his current squad, Brazil’s Flamengo, has been suspended because of this debacle.

His position with Perú was also in a perilous state, but days before Peru is scheduled to play its first World Cup game in 26 years versus Denmark, Guerrero was cleared to play by FIFA.

About the team’s possibilities in Russia, Hernani says, “Like any other country, I’d like my team to be the champion, or to be in the top five teams in the World Cup. But I feel the team is doing everything right. They have a coach that has made them believe in themselves. I think they’re going to get very far and wherever they go, it’ll be a victory for us.”

With the rise and almost fall of their favorite player, Peruvians were ready to support their team unconditionally...but now that Guerrero is back in the fold, Peru looks to be the surprise of the tourney.

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