Soccer: World Cup fever strikes as Peru and NZ face off for finals spot
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - World Cup finals fever enveloped New Zealand's capital on Friday as hundreds of noisy Peru fans greeted their team at the airport ahead of their intercontinental playoff with the All Whites on Saturday.
The South Americans had been training in Auckland all week and delayed their arrival in Wellington until Friday, with kickoff for the first leg of the tie at Wellington Regional Stadium at 4:15 pm (0315 GMT) on Saturday.
Greeted by chants of "Pe-ru! Pe-ru!", their welcome in Wellington mirrored that of when they touched down in New Zealand's largest city earlier this week with national-strip clad fans dancing, banging drums and blowing whistles as the team ran the gauntlet to a waiting bus.
A small presence of police officers was needed to clear a path for the team and their management staff, who are under immense pressure to take the side to their first World Cup finals since 1982.
"We would like to tell the 30 million expectant Peruvians back home and the thousands who have welcomed us at the airports or who have come to watch the match, we are ready," manager Ricardo Gareca told reporters through a translator on Friday.
"We will bring all their expectations to fruition."
Peru's fans, however, were not the only ones to invade Wellington, with New Zealand's most passionate supporters making lightning visits home from as far afield as Britain.
New Zealand Football estimated that more than 40 percent of tickets for the expected 38,000 sellout had been purchased by fans from outside of the greater Wellington region.
Airlines put on extra flights for the weekend, with local authorities estimating a windfall of about NZ$8 million ($5.54 million) for the local economy.
Peru are without captain Paolo Guerrero, who tested positive for a banned stimulant after a match on Oct. 5 and given a preliminary 30-day suspension..
The world's 10th-ranked side are expected to win the two-legged tie to advance to Russia, however, the All Whites, who reached their third successive intercontinental playoff, exuded confidence on Friday, with coach Anthony Hudson having arguably his strongest possible side available for the first time.
"I'm quite calm," Hudson told reporters on Friday of the fact he is able to call on West Ham United's Winston Reid to anchor the defence and Burnley's Chris Wood to lead the attack. "It has been a really good week of preparation.
"I think what gives me confidence is that we have a really good group of players, I believe in them, everyone understands what we need to do and it gives me confidence going into this game."
Captain Reid, who has missed numerous All Whites games through injury over the last three years, has boosted the side with fellow defender Michael Boxall stating earlier this week he brings a calm confidence to the entire squad.
Reid, who scored against Slovakia in New Zealand's 1-1 draw in the 2010 finals in South Africa, said his side were aware of the magnitude of the task in front of them.
"There is so much at stake for two games," he said.
"Our World Cup cycle depends on these two games so I think come tomorrow you will see a team that is ready, well prepared and we will give them a good game."
($1 = 1.44 New Zealand dollars)
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)