It’s a cry that’s been heard around the world this past week, ‘El mundial, el mundial, el mundial’ or the local language’s equivalent to it. Costa Rica qualified in the 94th minute of their game after equalising against Honduras, reducing one Honduran to furiously punching the dugout at the points dropped. Egypt scored the winner in the 95th minute, a penalty, in front of 100,000 first terror stricken and then ecstatic home supporters. Panama didn’t need additional time, and will be competing at their first ever World Cup – having cruelly missed out after a late U.S.A equaliser denied them a playoff against New Zealand in 2013. Mexico took their place. You remember.
New Zealand’s focus this time was on the CONMEBOL Qualifying group, and the battle for (and to avoid) fifth place and the inter-confederation playoff against the All Whites next month. Two years and eighty five games in, it was still all up for grabs. Only Brazil had properly qualified, meaning Uruguay, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay were still scrapping it out for the three remaining qualifying positions and the play-off place.
Down at the Fox on the viaduct, the Chileans of Auckland had already taken over the front of the bar, a few Brazilians sprinkled amongst them. Further back, a growing crowd of Colombians in bright yellow shirts stood by the bar while a knot of Peruvians claimed a table in front of one of the wall mounted TV’s. Further to the back, a worried looking cluster of Argentinians gripped flags and stared while a pair of Ecuadorian’s leant back on their chairs, impassive.
All the YouTube doco’s about the passion of foreign fans don’t prepare you for the experience of watching six different sets of supporters go through the wringer of do-or-die World Cup qualification. When asked, there was usually a pause followed by ‘We’ll win. I think’ or a variation on those words. Only the Ecuadorians, well out of contention, were philosophical about the whole affair.
They were less philosophical less than a minute into their game against Argentina when Romario Ibarra slid a ball across Sergio Romero. Colombia v Peru hadn’t yet kicked off and the Chilean supporters were fixated on the first few minutes. The noise from the back rippled the room and as people turned, saw, and then gawped at a replay, a chant went up, ‘Ecuador, ECUADOR!’. No love lost, but no viciousness intended either. More respect for the underdogs, even if they were playing at 9000ft above sea level.
While Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Peru played tentatively, the only team that started outside of the qualifying positions, Argentina, suddenly began to play like they should have in the other 17 rounds of matches. That’s unfair. And inaccurate. What really happened was Lionel Messi decided he’d win the game. While the rest of us focused on the other games, the scream from behind us as Argentina’s 10 scored his first on 11 minutes was only bettered by the yelling and flag waving that accompanied his second 8 minutes later.
By this time it was standing room only at the front as slowly, but steadily, every single Colombian in New Zealand made their way to the bar. The Chilean’s had a drum, a vuvuzela and flags to wave, but La Tricolor had numbers. Big numbers. I found myself next to a few Peruvians who quietly told me they expected to win, but that it wouldn’t be easy. Having watched Peru come away from La Bombonera with a point against Argentina, I certainly wasn’t putting it past them.
The corridor from the smoking area was filled with people, all staring at the fixed screen overhead. As the oohs, ahh’s from the game curled above our heads, the constant movement to and from the bar was punctuated by quiet permiso, permiso, permiso as bottles, jugs and plates went by.
Half time. Still scoreless in Sao Paolo and Lima, and a brief respite as legs were stretched and the manager set up an outside screen to divert some of the massed supporters into the rear garden. I went looking for those groups of supporters I’d seen earlier. The Peruvians still holding their territory, the Brazilians now clumped together – a splodge of yellow among a sea of Chilean red.
The Argentines seemed to have relaxed, but a winning scoreline after 16 years of failed attempts will do that. I asked the Ecuador pair about their chances of getting back into the game and was met with a shrug, ‘Messi, if he wants to win, he wins’.
Phones had come out and the clasification, the table was being scrutinised by all. With Argentina winning, Peru had dropped out of the top five with Colombia occupying the play-off spot. Forty five minutes more would change that.
Brazil struck first. The cry of disappointment from La Roja fans was drowned out by Colombians and Peruvians who realised Chile were now below them in the table. It was about to get better for El Tricolore fans as James Rodriguez arrowed a ball inside the near post to put Colombia a goal up, allowing them to climb higher and safer in the automatic qualification slots. The noise was deafening as a hundred men and women raised their arms, yelling and bouncing around in a spray of beer and adrenaline.
Peruvian faces crumpled, but a second Brazil goal saw phones refreshed frantically. Meanwhile behind us Messi completed his hat trick and the blue and white flags were being raised triumphantly. Peru needed to equalise to take the fifth spot. La Blanquirroja haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1982, and it’s been said that supporters visit their priest in the hope of some divine assistance in qualifying.
With the Argentina supporters jubilant at the back of the bar and the Chilean’s sunk into despair at the prospect of scoring two goals against Brazil in Sao Paolo, the focus was on Lima the fine line between qualifying, or at least having a chance. Colombia continued to press, and Peru subbed on a few players in the hope of changing the game.
Indirect free-kick to Peru. Indirect. Paolo Guerrero, 33 years old, steps up and hammers the ball around the wall directly. If it had nestled in the back of the net untouched, the goal would not have stood. However, David Ospina’s attempt to claw the ball away provided a vital touch and as Guerrero wheeled away the referee found himself surrounded by furious Colombians. The equaliser stood and, as it was, Peru were back into contention for a game against the All Whites.
Ten minutes left though, and ten minutes is a long time as Costa Ricans, Panamanians and Egyptians will tell you sure enough right now. As will Americans, although probably best not to ask them about it at the minute. Reports filtered through that Venezuela had taken the lead against Paraguay, who had been a quiet threat to all the borderline teams had they taken maximum points in Asuncion.
Added time in Sao Paolo and Gabriel Jesus scored a third, ensuring Chile’s fate was well and truly out of their hands. In Lima Peru and Colombia battled, but both were relatively safe. In the background an Argentine fan stood on a stool, screaming at the television as Argentina wasted a chance to put themselves three goals ahead.
The whistle blew in Quito, blew in Sao Paolo. And when the final whistle blew in Lima, the chants of Colombia were mixed in with cries of Peru as those in red began to make for the exits. Qualification. El Mundial. For the Peruvians, 180 minutes stand between them and a first qualification since 1982. In their way? Why, that’s us, isn’t it.
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John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.