SARANSK, Russia (Reuters) - It’s a long way from the Andes mountains to the Russian steppes, but Gino Huaneo was not going to miss watching Peru make their first appearance in the World Cup finals in 36 years.
The 27-year-old engineer traveled from his hometown of Cuzco to Lima, Amsterdam and Moscow by plane, then took a nine-hour train ride to Saransk in the Republic of Mordovia, where Peru take on Denmark on Saturday in their first Group C match.
“I had to save a lot to make this trip,” he said. “But we have great possibilities. We have a good team.”
He was one of several hundred Peruvians who have made their way to Saransk, seemingly all dressed in the red-and-white national colors, some sporting distinctive Indian-style woolly hats and some even feathered head-dresses.
One man carried an inflatable llama.
The Thursday evening plane from Moscow to Saransk was almost entirely full of Peruvians. They clapped when it took off, cheered when it landed, and even broke into chants when the bus dropped them off at the terminal.
“After 36 years, we have to give it everything,” Huaneo said, speaking outside the stadium on the eve of the match.
He was delighted by the return of star player and captain Paolo Guerrero, who has been involved in a doping incident with a particularly Andean twist.
Guerrero was banned after he tested positive for a cocaine byproduct contained in a tea he said he had drunk unwittingly. In Peru and other Andean nations, coca leaves are often consumed legally with hot water as a kind of tea.
The suspension was temporarily suspended pending appeal, allowing him to play in the tournament.
“He is our best player, a Peruvian Messi. Tomorrow when we sing our national anthem, the whole world will feel it,” Huaneo said.
Huaneo was following the team through its three games, which also include France in Yekaterinburg and Australia in Sochi.
“One is in Asia, the other is Europe,” he said with just a hint of trepidation.
Other fans milled around outside the Mordovia Arena on the outskirts of the quiet city dominated by Soviet-style architecture.
Milagros Huaita, a 24-year-old student from Lima, had come with her mother Berta, her uncles and cousin, also after making the long journey by plane and train.
“It’s the first time in my life Peru have been in the finals,” she said. “The team is very good. We haven’t lost in 14 games. We are going all the way to the final.”
She picked out midfielder Edison Flores as another player to watch.
One fan, 14-year-old schoolboy Manuel Bocanegra, was paying tribute to Flores by wearing a foam mask over his head depicting the player, with an emphasis on his ears. Flores’s nickname is “Oreja” or “Big Ears”.
Manuel’s father Andres wore a mask featuring coach Ricardo Gareca.
Manuel brandished a model of the World Cup trophy. “We are going to take the cup back to Peru,” he declared.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by XXXX