The power of sport as a unifying force has been underlined in the build-up to the All Whites’ crucial meeting with Peru for a place in the 2018 FIFA World Cup as communities from all over Wellington come together to embrace the football fever sweeping across the capital.
Tens of thousands of All Whites fans and up to 2,000 Peruvians have descended on the city for the Intercontinental Playoff at Westpac Stadium this afternoon and turned Civic Square into a hive of culture and footballing fun yesterday.
At the centre of the celebrations was a 5-a-side game between the Inka Warriors, made up of Peruvian supporters, and a team of former refugees now living in Wellington.
The refugee team was selected in recognition of the Wellington Phoenix FootbALL diversity programme which saw former refugees offered Phoenix season tickets as recognition of the important role sport plays in building bridges between individuals and across communities.
The match was controlled by Wellington city councillor and Wellington Ambassador Simon Woolf, who is a qualified referee.
Members of the public also had an opportunity to win the hottest ticket in town – double passes to the All Whites v Peru game or signed All Whites jerseys – by kicking a bullseye on the Inflatable Target game while All Whites merchandise was available for purchase through a pop-up Soccer Shop stall.
But the main attraction was the 5-a-side match and hundreds gathered around the artificial turf that had been laid in the middle of the square to witness a keenly-fought but very well-spirited spectacle. Despite being cheered on with singing and dancing by a boisterous contingent of their passionate supporters, the Peru team fell to a 7-6 loss as the former refugees emerged triumphant.
But the power of football to create positivity and bring communities together was the real winner on the day.
“With the All Whites being in town and this being such a major game, we’ve got all our communities from around the Wellington region really wanting to get in behind the team – and there’s no better way than to bring them together on the football pitch,” says Rakesh Naidoo, Strategic Advisor Race Relations for the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.
“There’s arguably no bigger supporters of football in New Zealand than our former refugee communities. They come from countries that are steeped in football such as Colombia, Myanmar and Somalia. They all just love the game and, whenever there’s a major event, they try to get out and support it,” adds Naidoo, who is also a New Zealand Football Board Member.
“So today was an opportunity for them to come and show their skills a bit but also to play against the Peruvian team. We have a great contingent of Peruvians who are here in the capital and the refugee community thought it would be great for them to come out and play.”
The event was organised by the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (WREDA) with assistance from New Zealand Football, Wellington Phoenix FC, Westpac Stadium, the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, Flying Kiwis and the Peru Supporters Group.
New Zealand Football Chief Executive Andy Martin was excited to be part of such a heart-warming occasion and to witness Wellington awash with football fever.
“It was fantastic and great to see,” he says.
“We’re absolutely delighted Wellington has got behind football and this is exactly why we’ve brought the game here. The communities have helped us and got behind us all the way through so I wish to thank them for that. Seeing all the communities come out and get involved in this is really pleasing for us and we want to see everyone there at the big game and having a great time. We want lots of noise in the stadium for the All Whites.”