PAOLO GUERRERO AND THE ETERNAL FIGHT

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Paolo Guerrero is certainly no stranger to newsworthy suspensions. He made headlines for throwing a water bottle at a fan in the early days of his playing career. Years later, FIFA handed him a six-game suspension from the Peruvian national team for insulting a referee. None of these experiences could have possibly prepared him for what would be the most complicated suspension of his life.

Before delving into that, let’s go back to where it all started. Guerrero was born and raised in Lima, Peru. That’s also where he got his start as a footballer. When he was just three years old, his family and his city was changed forever. His uncle was a star player for Alianza Lima, the club that was the pride of the city.

The team had an amazing group of players, and pundits across South America were pegging the 1987 Alianza Lima squad to be the next big thing. In the season prior, the club finished second in its league. Alianza Lima suffered a disappointing early exit from the Copa Libertadores the following year, so the club’s full focus was centered on maintaining the momentum of the previous season by winning the league.

In December of 1987, the Alianza Lima squad was thrilled because a 1-0 victory over Deportivo Pucallpa pushed them comfortably to the top of the table. The team hired a Peruvian Navy plane to handle their flight back to Lima after the match. The plane, almost at maximum capacity, was filled with coaching staff, players, cheerleaders, members of the press, and even a few travelling fans. The team was set to win the league. All of the player’s career prospects were better than ever, and the coaching staff could rest assured that the club higher ups were happy with their performance.

The pilot, on the other hand, was very uneasy. This was one of his first flights at night. It would be revealed decades later that he’d never been properly trained for these types of flights. Any hopes of the nerve-wracking flight being over soon were dashed to pieces when he made the terrifying discovery that the indicator lights to assure him that the landing gear was properly deployed wasn’t working.

The pilot contacted the closest air traffic control tower. He arranged to fly over a nearby airport to be told if the landing gear was in fact down or not. The pilot was given the green light. The landing gear was down, and within just a few more miles, he would have been safe to land. All seemed to be well, but things were about to go terribly wrong.

Between concealed records and the passage of time, no one knows exactly what happen in those next fateful minutes. The usual procedures for landing was started. Then, something went wrong. An emergency signal was sent out and communications were lost. Within five minutes, the plane plummeted into the Pacific Ocean, and the crash killed everyone except the pilot. Guerrero’s uncle was dead.

One could reason that Guerrero would have been too young to remember the details of this. Only he could tell you whether that reasoning is correct, but one could also reason that he was old enough to grow up in the shadow of that tragedy. He heard about it throughout his entire childhood. He saw the blue and white decorations (the colours of Alianza Lima) swathing his city on the days of mourning for his uncle and his teammates, and it would only stand to reason that he heard family stories cherishing the memory of his uncle who died so tragically. That’s why it’s no wonder that when he followed in his uncle’s footsteps and became a soccer player, he had to battle a morbid fear of flying.

For a period, that fear of flying didn’t hold him back because he would soon become and international player. At the tender age of 18-years-old, he was discovered by Bayern Munich. Guerrero left his home and everything familiar to him to live in Germany. While he was there, he worked his way from the academy to the professional Bayern Munich squad and began to make a name for himself on the big stage. Eventually, he transferred from Bayern to play for Hamburg. His first season with his new team was dampened by an injury that left him with very little playing time.

That’s when his morbid fear of flying became an issue again. While he recuperated from his knee injury, he flew back home to Peru. Leaving Peru proved to be much more difficult than getting there. Over the course of a month, Guerrero made weekly trips to the airport only return back to his parents’ home because he couldn’t force himself to stay on the plane long enough for it to take off.

Being afraid of flying is difficult enough, but as Guerrero later explained to German newspapers his phobia presents itself with both mental and physical symptoms. Guerrero suffers from intense gastrointestinal issues when flying as well. In addition to dealing with the career of flying, he also had to grapple with anxiety over whether or not the stomach problems caused by his fear would lead to an embarrassing situation. To try to combat the issue, Guerrero began to take tranquilizers before flights, and member of his family volunteered to accompany him on his journey back to Germany to try to keep him calm.

At the age of 26, Guerrero’s career was threatened by a seemingly unconquerable phobia. In addition to the internal pressure to get on the plane, there was external pressure. News reports in Germany were approaching his situation with as much ridicule and patronization as sympathy. All the while he watched as his team did well without him. Certainly, he must have wondered if Hamburg would move on if he couldn’t get back soon enough.

After seeking therapy for his phobia, Guerrero was finally able to return to Hamburg months after he was slated to make a return from his injury spell. In that same season, he would go on to set a club record, but it wasn’t a very good one.

Hanover was a struggling team during the 2010 season. In fact, the club was dangling precariously on the edge of relegation. Perhaps, that’s why Guerrero was so frustrated when Hamburg was only able to manage a 0-0 draw against the bottom of the table club. As Guerrero was walking into the tunnel, one voice distinguished itself from the general din of the crowd. There was a fan who made a few choice remarks to Guerrero, and the player snapped. With as much accuracy as his passes on the field, he flung his water bottle at the fan. After a seven-month injury spell, Guerrero was sidelined again, this time because of his own behavior. In addition to the well-deserved suspension, he made a public apology and was publicly denounced by his club President.

The sting of this bad decision was likely heightened by the memory of how his international career had been previously stunted by a similar split-second decision. In the midst of World Cup Qualifiers for Peru, FIFA gave Guerrero a six-game suspension for a spat with a referee. Although the details of what was said have never been published, he was officially punished for “insulting a referee.”

After six seasons with Hamburg, Guerrero made a move back to South America. Although a return to his boyhood club, Alianza Lima, would have made for a great story, he transferred to Corinthians in Brazil. There, Guerrero quickly became a fan favorite. He was instrumental in helping Corinthians claim a FIFA Club World Cup in 2013. In 2014, he singlehandedly scored 32% of Corinthians’ goals in Brasileirão, Brazil’s national professional league. He was the definition of a prolific striker.

While he wasn’t necessarily a violent player, he had a bit of a wild streak to him and could get mouthy with referees. He certainly kept things interesting to say the least. He was relatively good looking, and he just wouldn’t stop scoring goals. Football is big in Brazil, but Guerrero became more than just a football star. During his time with Corinthians, he became a bit of a celebrity. After a few seasons, Guerrero and the club couldn’t agree on the worth of his star power, so he went on to a club that would pay him more – Flamengo.

In Spanish, Guerrero means warrior, which is a very fitting name for Paolo Guerrero. After fighting his intense phobia of flying, the doubts of all the scouts and coaches along the way who didn’t rate his abilities, his own temper, and all the problems it got him into, the biggest battle of his entire career was still ahead of him. Oddly enough, his playing ability would not be sufficient for this battle because this battle would be fought in a court room.

By October 2017, Paolo Guerrero was used to hearing fans, especially those from his native Peru, scream his name, but he didn’t give them much reason to on October 5. Guerrero was finally in the right place at the right time. At the age of 34, he’d become a mainstay in the Peruvian national squad, and the team had a fighting chance at making it to the World Cup for the first time in Guerrero’s lifetime.

This match was a World Cup Qualifier, the very same type of match that he earned his first international cap in. Peru played Argentina in La Bombanera, but the match proved to be a fruitless one for both nations. With very little possession and only one shot on goal, it had been a frustrating night for the Peruvians. Maybe, Guerrero was lost in thought when a stranger walked into the locker room and called his name.

The names of Edson Flores, Paulo Dybala, and Alejandro Gomez were also called. All four players had to take a mandatory drug test. This was business as usual. This was just way of making sure the game stays clean.

Things were anything but usual for Guerrero because he tested positive for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine. Benzoylecgonine is bad enough on its own because it’s recognized by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) as a performance enhancing drug. The presence of benzoylecgonine in the blood or urine is sign that a person could be using cocaine.

At first, FIFA didn’t release what substance Guerrero tested positive for. Initial reports only referred to it as a social drug. The Peruvian Football Federation rushed to put out an official statement proclaiming its unwavering support for the nation’s all time highest goal scorer. The initial news reports were cautious in nature. Many featured quotes from football officials who claimed the test results didn’t necessary spell doom and gloom for Guerrero. While the substance was still not disclosed, some claimed that it was something that could have been caused by taking flu medicine. If Guerrero had told either his national or domestic team that he was taking flu medicine, there would have been no problem whatsoever.

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As a matter of procedure, Guerrero received an automatic 30-day suspension. To decide whether Guerrero’s suspension would last more than 30 days, a FIFA investigation was launched. The results of that investigation were released in December. Guerrero was suspended for one year. His World Cup dreams were dashed to pieces.

Or were they? Less than two weeks later, FIFA reached another decision. With the help of a biochemist and his legal team, Guerrero convinced FIFA that the levels of benzoylecgonine did not correlate to recreational consumption of cocaine. The biochemist had done extensive research on coca tea and benzoylecgonine due to a gruesome discovery of mummified Inca children under the snow in a Peruvian mountain. The bodies of those children tested positive for levels of benzoylecgonine similar to Guerrero, and cocaine didn’t even exist when the children died. Coca tea, however, was a substance that the long dead children could have easily been exposed to.

Coca tea is made from the same coca leaves that are used to make cocaine. This tea is perfectly legal to drink in many South American countries, but it’s a widely known fact that athletes cannot drink this tea. Guerrero claimed that he had not intentionally drank coca tea, but he acknowledge that he was fighting the flu around that fateful match on October 5. He’d drank herbal teas in a restaurant that also serve coca tea to try to get healthy in time for the match. It was possible that his drink could have been contaminated by coca leaves (or worse, spiked.)

FIFA agreed with Guerrero’s explanation and released and updated statement. FIFA’s updated statement had the connotation that it was completely understood that Guerrero didn’t intentionally take cocaine or benzoylecgonine but had been exposed to the substance inadvertently from tea. The consensus, at least as far as FIFA was concerned, was reached that Guerrero hadn’t done anything underhanded. He hadn’t intentionally tried to get a leg up over his opponents through use of a chemical, but he had been negligent, to a degree, for exposing himself to coca tea. His suspension was reduced to six months, making him able to play again just in time for the World Cup.

The court of public opinion had a different verdict. While Guerrero’s fans stood beside him, there were many media sources that went in a frenzy against him. He was portrayed as an addict, a liar, and a criminal, and those that supported him were made out to be in denial.

It would have been fine for Guerrero if negative opinions were his only opposition, but there was a much bigger entity that wasn’t pleased with FIFA’s decision. WADA challenged FIFA’s decision with the Court of Arbitration of Sports. WADA demanded that Guerrero serve out the 14-month suspension that is called for by the organization’s own policies when a player tests positive for benzoylecgonine, and the Court approved of the reinstatement of Guerrero’s suspension.

Almost as soon as it had been granted, Paolo Guerrero’s right to compete in his first World Cup was stripped from him a devastating second time. Guerrero flew to Switzerland to clear his name once again. Guerrero released public statements saying that this fight had become about more than his right to play. He felt that his honour was challenged and his family name was being besmirched. He was proud to have never taken any drugs, and he was determined to litigate over his reputation if nothing else. With his legal team in tow, he filed an appeal against the case.

By this time, Guerrero’s story had made headlines all over the world. Guerrero was no longer being ridiculed. Many fellow footballers came to his side. It was clear that Guerrero had done nothing sinister, but the powers that be were determined to punish him as if he had. If Guerrero’s case ended in an unfavourable ruling, a dangerous precedent could have been set that could jeopardize that careers of any players who found themselves in similar situations. Captains of other national teams wrote a joint letter in his behalf. FIFPro, an international union of footballers, came to his defense as well.

It’s no secret that Paolo Guerrero did compete in the 2018 World Cup, but that’s not the end of this story. The Court of Arbitration of Sports has yet to reach a decision in Guerrero’s case. To allow him to play in the World Cup, his 14-month suspension was put on hold. The Court could still reach an unfavorable decision at any time and restart his 14-month suspension.

In July of 2018, Paolo Guerrero played his first match in months for Flamengo. There was much speculation over whether he’d be able to play domestically before a verdict was reached. The Brazilian Football Confederation, which Flamengo answers to, cleared Guerrero to play in domestic matches until CAS makes a final decision. The fans were eager to welcome him back. Although the club lost 0-1, Guerrero played well. This suspension still puts his entire career in a precarious position.

As long as the suspension is on hold, his career has the potential to be paused as well. Guerrero’s current contract with Flamengo ends as of October 2018, and this uncertain development is detrimental to contract negotiations. Although stranger things have happened, Flamengo would be taking a risk to sign a player to a long-term contract who may not be able play for more than a year. If Flamengo don’t renew his contract, it will be difficult for Guerrero, who could be suspended at any moment, to find another club willing to grapple with this odd situation. Current reports suggest, that, whether because of his possible suspension or not, Flamengo has no interest in renewing his contract.

Although this may be jumping to a negative conclusion, the verdict from the Court of Arbitration of Sports has the power to send Paolo Guerrero to an early retirement. For a player who’s earned the reputation as a fighter, this ongoing fight has the power to give him the ultimate TKO. There are fans, players, and officials rooting for Guerrero, but will it be enough?

BY MARISSA BLACKMAN

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