American Football

Peru face World Cup test without drug-banned hero

Those fingertips belonged to Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina, who touched Paolo Guerrero's indirect free kick into the net and, in doing so, handed Peru a 1-1 draw last month. Follow @cnnsportHad Ospina not connected with the ball, the goal wouldn't have stood.With nobody inside the Estadio Nacional de Lima — or watching up and down Peru — quite sure what decision the referee had made, the celebration were strangely muted and delayed.Then came the realization — and with it came the joy. Peru were just two games away from the 2018 World Cup in Russia.With Chile losing by more than one goal to Brazil, the point gained from Guerrero's strike was enough for Peru to finish fifth and qualify for an intercontinental playoff against New Zealand."At first there was euphoria but any Peruvian will tell you that the next stage is anxiety, just waiting for the whistle to blow," Luis Miguel Echegaray, a Peruvian journalist for Sports Illustrated, told CNN of that moment."It's been a long, long time since we have been able to reach this kind of success, so excitement also comes with animosity."READ: The Bundesliga referee shattering football's glass ceilingREAD: Noise of Besiktas fans 'intimidates' oppositionREAD: Patrice Evra suspended for kung fu kicking his own team's fanREAD: How football's 'Culture Club' wins with the help of ballet

Hero's drug ban

It didn't take long, though, for Peruvian anxiety to return.Guerrero, their savior that night in Lima — as he had been on countless other occasions throughout his career — will not be available for the two-legged clash against the All Whites.The team's captain, talisman and focal point on the pitch is currently serving a 30-day provisional ban for failing a drug test taken after October's draw in Argentina.Initial reports suggest the banned substance found in his sample derived from the coca leaf, a popular South American plant that is chewed or brewed to make tea to combat altitude sickness and other illnesses. Despite Guerrero's absence, the mood in Peru is still one of confidence and expectation."It's a blow … but its not catastrophic," Echegaray says. "With all due respect to New zealand, if we were playing against a tougher, bigger soccer power I would be more worried. "Yes, New Zealand should be taken seriously and have a lot of talent (Winston Reid, and Chris Wood) but Peru has enough talent to go through."Reportedly, Guerrero's lawyers have since said some flu medication he took for a cold he was suffering from at the time may have contained the illegal substance.Currently in Germany undergoing further testing, Peru are confident their all-time record goalscorer's previously impeccable record will help his defense in front of FIFA's disciplinary committee."For Peruvians, Paolo Guerrero is a national hero," Echegaray explains. "Aside from everything he has done for the national team, his international reputation has made him into the most celebrated Peruvian footballer of all time alongside the legendary Nene Cubillas."It was big in Peru, that (drug ban) is all everyone could talk about but he is supported by everyone. He is a hero for Peruvians, so to the nation believes he is innocent till proven guilty and he has a right to defend himself."Folks from other nations who are blessed with so much talent (Argentina, Brazil, France, Spain) need to understand that this Peru squad, although filled with talent, is young and inexperienced at international level so Guerrero's role as a leader needs to be remembered."Peru national team midfielder Renato Tapia echoes these sentiments and, with or without Guerrero, knows the team has a job to do."We support him in all the things that he says," Tapia told reporters. "He is our captain and he is always going to be. And yeah, we just need to be calm and be focused on those games."

'Lack of professionalism'

On top of Ospina's fingertips, Peru's good fortune in World Cup qualifying was extended from the pitch to the courtroom. During matchday six, Bolivia comprehensively beat Peru 2-0 in La Paz, before traveling to Santiago and escaping with an impressive goalless draw against Chile.In both matches, the Bolivians fielded Paraguayan-born Nelson Cabrera. Technically a Bolivian citizen having lived in the country for three years, Cabrera's citizenship wasn't recognized by FIFA, whose rules state a player must have lived in a country for at least five years.The Court of Arbitration for Sport reversed Bolivia's win, awarding all three points to Peru and similarly converted Chile's draw into a win.In a turn of bitter irony for the Chileans, had they not appealed to CAS over the matter, it would be them facing New Zealand instead of Peru.Echegaray, however, believes too much emphasis has been placed on these moments of good fortune, rather than the team's incredible turnaround on the pitch under Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca.In the last eight rounds of qualifying, Peru earned four wins and three draws, with the sole defeat coming away to Brazil."In order to achieve anything, you need luck and the chance to take opportunity of good fortune," he recognizes. "But people don't understand just how much Gareca has done for this team. "The average age is about 25, many players had little to no international experience going in the qualifiers and there is also the history of a lack of professionalism in Peru's past."All these factors, Echegaray explains, have led to Peru failing to qualify for the World Cup since 1982."But Gareca came in and changed all of that, " he continues. "He implemented discipline, team unity, accountability and dedication. "He did all of that during times when the press also wanted his head at the beginning. but he remained the same, kept his vision and the players trusted him."Peru's opponents New Zealand, meanwhile, head into the clash have been given two huge boosts. Captain Winston Reid and star striker Chris Wood, both Premier League stars, have been passed fit to play in the first leg in Wellington.

Honduras vs. Australia

Australia currently find themselves in an unprecedented era of World Cup success.Prior to Germany 2006, the Socceroos had only qualified for the World Cup once (Germany 1974) but are now two matches away from reaching a fourth successive tournament.The road hasn't been pretty; a lackluster qualifying campaign saw them finish third in Group B behind Japan and Saudi Arabia, before an unconvincing 3-2 two-legged win over Syria set them up for a decisive intercontinental play-off against Honduras.Australia are not without major injury concerns of their own. All-time record goalscorer Tim Cahill, whose 50th international goal was the winner against Syria, remains a major doubt for the first leg in Honduras with an ankle injury sustained playing for Melbourne City.No country has had to travel further for World Cup qualifiers than Australia, who have already endured arduous return flights to Thailand, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.According to Australia's Associated Press, the entire squad has had to travel a combined total of 200,000 kilometers from their club bases to San Pedro Sula in Honduras."The boys have a lot of travel ahead of them but that's one thing we're very good at," midfielder Mark Milligan, whose suspension has kept him in Australia, told AAP"The medical staff prepare us very well to deal with that. If you're not used to travelling across the world all the time it can play on your mind and it can make things tough. We accept it."That helps the mental side. The travel will be a definite advantage for us."

Other World Cup qualifiers

  • Croatia vs. Greece
  • Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
  • Sweden vs. Italy
  • Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
  • South Africa vs. Senegal
  • Tunisia vs. Libya
  • Congo DR vs. Guinea
  • Ivory Coast vs. Morocco

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