11 Nov 2017

Lima going loco for World Cup qualifier

7:49 am on 11 November 2017

Opinion - If you think New Zealanders are passionate about rugby, wait until you see what Peruvians would do for football.

Peru football fans celebrate the arrival of their team at Auckland Airport.

Peru football fans. Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Photosport

Earlier this week in Melbourne, we saw the race that stops a nation, today I'm in Lima for the football match that stops a nation, or so it seems.

As I sit here in my local coffee shop, the wait staff are all dressed in Peru football shirts. It's the same at the supermarket down the road. Walking down the street, an item of Peruvian football team clothing is more common than any other attire.

Football dominates everywhere you look, they talk about it all day on the TV, they write about it in all the newspapers, and they discuss and debate it on the radio.

For Peru, today is the biggest day since 22 June, 1982 when they played their last Football World Cup match, a 5-1 loss to Poland.

It seems somewhat unfathomable that a nation that supports football like Peru haven't been to a World Cup in 35 years but it's not easy qualifying out of South America amongst such powerhouses as Brazil and Argentina.

Now, is their best chance. And Lima feels it, it knows it. There will be huge unrest here if they blow this chance and lose the tie, but there will be a party like no other if they get the job done.

First things first, they can't qualify today in Wellington, but they can go a long way towards deciding their fate in this tie.

The first leg kicks off at 10:15pm Peru time, everyone will be glued to a television set in their home, a bar or at a party.

I'm taking the latter option, a fortunate meeting with some Peruvians on the flight from New York to Lima has led to an invite to a viewing party where I'm assured I'll be the only New Zealander in attendance, at an approximate ratio of 100:1.

But there will be no hostility, the Peruvian people are lovely and warm and though my poor Spanish prevents any sort of analytical discussion on the merits of either side a quick mention of 'Nueva Zelanda' usually provokes a huge, beaming smile.

A win in the opening leg is massive for Peru. That might sound like stating the obvious, but get a win and Lima will be partying all the way through until the second leg at the Estadio Nacional on Wednesday, and that will spur the Peruvian side on to complete the job at home. If they lose, the pressure on them when they arrive in Lima will be immense.

Already, a huge crowd is expected at the airport Saturday for their arrival from New Zealand, and the mood of that crowd will be dictated by the result today.

I was assured that crowd would follow the team to the hotel, and camp out there until they moved again. The Peruvian team will essentially have its own public watchdog in the lead up to Wednesday's second leg.

My novice-level experience of fandom on this level means I'm not really sure what to expect when the teams arrive in Lima, but it's impossible not to be swept up by the euphoric feeling sweeping this city and just buckle in for the ride.

Tonight Peru will stop what it's doing and focus all its attention on Wellington, and it'll stop once again next Wednesday in Lima where they'll hope to qualify for the World Cup and start the biggest party here since 1982.

* Simon Hampton is a freelance sports reporter based in Peru.