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The hitchhiker

New Zealand 0, Peru 0
Westpac Stadium, Wellington, November 11 2017

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I wish I was an Aztec
Or a runner in Peru
I would build such beautiful buildings
To house the chosen few
Like an Inca from Peru

From around 10:30am on Wednesday the 11th of October, New Zealand time, the vast majority of football fans in this country were glued to our smart phones – waiting to see who would face the All Whites in the intercontinental playoff for a place at the 2018 World Cup.

Would it be Lionel Messi’s Argentina, Alexis Sánchez’ Chile, or even Carlos Bacca’s Colombia gracing our shores?

It took almost until the last kick of the last game for us to finally be put out of our collective misery. It was Peru – a team that I for one knew absolutely nothing about.

The only thing it brought to mind for me was one of my favourite Neil Young songs – Hitchhiker – a meandering tale of the great Canadian singer/songwriter’s drug addled youth, that ends with the above verse. I’ve been humming it to myself ever since that October morning.

Then Paolo Guerrero, Peru’s star striker, tested positive for benzoylecgonine – a metabolite of coca – and the song took on a whole new meaning.

A little cocaine went a long long way
To ease that different load
But my head did explode

A month, almost to the second, after those decisive fixtures on the other side of the Pacific – I was driving around Wellington with a friend who had kindly picked me up from the airport. We were looking for a way to get to my uncle’s house in Te Aro so I could drop my bag off before we headed to Petone for the REAL big game of the day – Capital v Canterbury in the National Women’s League.

This task would have been completed by 10:30am if it wasn’t for Wellington City Council’s strange want to place gigantic planter boxes in the middle of streets where there should be an intersection. So instead we circled around the block discussing Italy’s probable elimination from the World Cup while looking for an actual road.

Gli Azzurri had just drawn 0-0 in Stockholm. I didn’t need to wait for the second leg to know we were out – for the first time in my life the first tournament I ever fell in love with would be without the first team I ever fell in love with. To say that this is devastating would be a gross understatement.

But would it be without the country of my birth as well? Others would have disagreed with me at the time, but if you had asked me right then and there who was more likely to play in Russia, Winston Reid or Daniele De Rossi, I would have bet my house on the Hammer. But that didn’t mean the All Whites had a much greater chance than ‘not so Ace’ Ventura’s Italy.

To be honest, all I was really hoping for from the day at that point was some nice snaps of players celebrating goals…

I wasn’t going to apply for photographer accreditation – you know me and night shooting! But then the match was scheduled for broad daylight so I couldn’t resist having a crack.

And it’s here that I have to mention the real hero of this fantastic result for the All Whites. It wasn’t Winston Reid or Ryan Thomas or Stefan Marinovic. It was Courtney, New Zealand Football’s photographer wrangler!

There were 30-40 odd snappers at the game and we had all been given assigned seats that our buttocks were not allowed break contact with as long as there were players on the pitch.

How many of us do you think were happy with where we had been put?

So Courtney had to play peace broker and calmly work her way through all the requests to swap, trying to ensure everyone was relatively happy with their lot – a feat she achieved, and I have to say she should have a go at world peace next because if you can make three dozen photographers happy then the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula should be child’s play.

Me, I looked at what I had been given – right in front of the Peruvian away zone – and thought “that’ll do me”. Chances were Peru would score two or three goals and if I couldn’t get a kick-arse celebration shot from there then I should hang my head in shame.

Little did we know, because the New Zealand team management had shut everyone (and rumour has it this included people whose offices are at Westpac Stadium) out of All Whites training completely, that Peru weren’t the only team that would be starting the game without their star striker.

Then came paranoia
And it ran away with me
I couldn’t sign my autograph
Or appear on TV
Or see or be seen

And if I had known it would finish 0-0 I probably would have joined the circus and asked for a better positioned spot relative to the afternoon sun. But hey, I got to sit pitch-side for one of the biggest games and most important results in New Zealand football history so don’t think for a second that I’m ungrateful!

Soaking up the atmosphere in that corner of the stadium was fantastic. Nobody knows how to support their team like South American’s do. Watching them go for it while a small group of Kiwi supporters tried to start a Mexican Wave nearby was a definite highlight!

And as I wandered out of the stadium with them after the final whistle, their disappointment was clear. I didn’t need to understand a word of Spanish. It was obvious from the Latin gestures I recognise from my own heritage. Arms open low and wide, shoulders up, chin forward, bottom lip curled down – it means “well that was shit, wasn’t it?”

After a night on my uncle’s couch, all that was left was to meet up with John Palethorpe, grab the rental car we had booked and drive north. I have to say this was an inspired decision. I had a great time chatting away, getting to know my fellow ITBOTNer better and generally talking rubbish. The long trip was almost over too soon.

When I was a hitchhiker on the road
I had to count on you
But you needed me to ease the load
And for conversation too
Or did you just drive on through

At that stage I knew that whether the All Whites made the World Cup or not, I’ve had my money’s worth out of this qualification campaign and then some.

The trouble is though, when your country is ranked 122 in the world and you’re playing a team ranked 10th, the last thing you want to do is get your hopes up. Because we all know that in football, hope is a cruel mistress.

What chance did we really have of going through?

Yet still, we believed.

Then I tried amphetamines
And my head was in a glass
Taped underneath the speedometer wires
Of my ’48 Buick’s dash.


But I knew that wouldn’t last…

 

Categories: All Whites

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/

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