Paolo Guerrero will not remember the last time Peru strutted the stage at a World Cup finals. The veteran striker, 33, was born two years after Spain 1982, when an Inca side containing the great Teofilo Cubillas went out in the first round, despite entertaining fans with their flowing, brave football at the tournament. But Guerrero will have grown up with the images of that appearance, which grow ever more distant as the years go by.
No less than 35 years and eight World Cups have passed by since Peru rubbed shoulders with the elite of international football. Now, with just two games left to go in qualifying, nobody is more determined to end that prolonged absence than Guerrero – even if it means leaving Lionel Messi and Argentina out of Russia 2018.
Three months away from his 34th birthday, this is surely Guerrero's last chance to make the World Cup finals. It would be the perfect way to sign off a career that has yielded sterling service for both club and country. Having moved from the Alianza Lima youth ranks to Bayern Munich while still a teenager, Guerrero eventually made his name as a powerful centre-forward at Hamburg, where he starred for six years and became a club idol.
The striker's path then took him back to South America, where he was recruited by Corinthians to dispute the 2012 Club World Cup. The Brazilians' gamble paid off handsomely: in front of a Yokohama crowd so partisan it appeared to be just another suburb of sprawling Sao Paulo, thousands of Timao fans were sent into raptures when he powered home a close-range header to down Chelsea and crown his new club as world champions.
The goal may have been one of the easier efforts he has put away, but it was typical Guerrero – impeccable positioning, perfect anticipation and the precision to avoid a host of Chelsea bodies on the line and put Corinthians ahead.
For Peru too, his performances over the years have been little short of heroic in a team that has suffered almost constant instability. Thirty-two goals in 80 games mark him as the Incas' all-time top scorer, a title he claimed from Cubillas in the 2016 Copa America, and with five strikes so far in this qualifying campaign, he is tied with the impressive Edison Flores as his nation's best marksman. Guerrero can also boast two third-place finishes in the Copa America with Peru, back in 2011 and 2015 – but the World Cup is the big prize, and it has never looked so close.
“These are the most important matches of my career, we must stay calm in order to take on this commitment,” the striker told reporters upon arriving for international duty. He is not wrong. Currently holding the fourth and final automatic qualifying spot for Russia over Argentina by virtue of goals scored, Peru know their fate lies in their own hands. Win in the Bombonera against the Albiceleste and then at home to Colombia, and no other result will matter.
Gareca's team are unbeaten in 2017, with three wins out of four, and the signs are there that a side that blends youth with experience, grit and steel with no lack of creativity has finally matured and found the consistency that has been so hard to channel in recent years.
Historical references are impossible to avoid when one talks about Peru, especially when Argentina lie on the other side of the pitch. The last time the Albiceleste failed to qualify for a World Cup finals came in 1969, when a 2-2 draw in the very Bombonera stadium that plays host to Thursday's game saw Peru reach the tournament in their place. Nine years later, and again in Buenos Aires, a 6-1 blow-out of the Inca helped Argentina advance from the first round of the World Cup on home soil, amid widespread allegations that their opponents – particularly goalkeeper Ramon Quiroga, born in Argentina – had been bribed or intimidated by the military dictatorship and rolled over.
Even Guerrero himself is touched by the past. The striker suffers a near-paralysing fear of flying which he claims stems from the disaster that struck Alianza Lima in 1987, when the team's aeroplane crashed and killed 43 on board, including Guerrero's uncle. But when he steps out onto the Bombonera on Thursday, Peru's warrior will only be thinking of the present, and of booking his team's tickets to Russia. If in order to do that, Messi and Argentina have to miss out, that will be no problem whatsoever for a man whose competitive spirit and fearless marksmanship have inspired a nation for over a decade.