Peru abuzz about first World Cup in 36 years

From the peaks of the Andes to the jungles of the Amazon, Peru is alive with anticipation for the World Cup, despite the absence of star player Paolo Guerrero.

Even without their captain, who is serving a controversial doping suspension, coach and former Argentine international Ricardo Gareca is confident they can make an impact after qualifying for the finals for the first time in 36 years.

"All the obstacles that we face -- we are going to resolve them on and off the pitch," said the manager, who has become a hero to Peruvians.

They open their campaign against Denmark on June 16 in Saransk, followed by a clash against powerhouse France on June 21 in Yekaterinburg. Rounding out their Group C fixtures is a meeting with Australia in Sochi on June 26.

Guerrero, 34, tested positive for traces of cocaine after a World Cup qualifier between Peru and Argentina on October 5.

Initially banned for a year, it was later reduced to six months on appeal last December.

That ban ended on May 3, making Guerrero eligible to play at the June 14-July 15 World Cup in Russia.

But the emblematic Peru captain wanted the ban annulled and arrived at the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) hearing two weeks ago flanked by lawyers.

The World Anti Doping Body (WADA) retaliated, appealing to CAS to uphold their original sanction, and sport's top arbitration court responded by increasing Guerrero's ban.

The player and the Peruvian Football Federation President Edwin Oviedo then met FIFA President Gianni Infantino in Zurich, but afterwards a statement from world football's ruling body said it was virtually powerless to change final decisions by the Swiss-based CAS.

His last hope now lies with the Swiss Federal Court, the country's highest court, where he lodged an appeal on May 25.

Nevertheless, Peru's qualification for football's elite competition has been a welcome boost for a nation long resigned to watching the action from the sidelines.

- Last goal -

The last time Peru participated in a World Cup was the 1982 tournament held in Spain. Eight finals have come and gone since.

Peru were held to a goalless draw by Cameroon, drew 1-1 with Italy, and then lost 5-1 to Poland as they bowed out in the group stage.

They had been optimistic before setting out, but "things did not go the way we had hoped, we were very timid in our game and therefore we were eliminated and beaten," former forward Guillermo La Rosa, who scored Peru's goal against Poland, told AFP.

It was also Peru's last goal in a World Cup, something remembered by fans to this day. La Rosa is anxious to see another goal at this World Cup to take its place.

"I never thought that it would be remembered so much, I've already had enough of that goal I scored. I wanted the team to go to the World Cup to finish with this," said the former player, now 65.

Percy Rojas, who played in Argentina '78 and Spain '82, told AFP that playing at a World Cup is "like a university graduation" for a player, because his name becomes known throughout the world.

With football fever breaking out across the country, no space is immune -- not even prisons, where Rojas has been visiting and overseeing tournaments between inmates wearing the jerseys of the 32 nations participating in the Russia World Cup.

Peru made their World Cup debut in the first ever tournament held in Uruguay in 1930, and also went to Mexico in 1970 and Argentina in 1978 before the 1982 finals.