SARANSK, Russia (AP) — Peru soccer fan Daniel Etchevarria learned he had severe arthritis in his knees shortly after his beloved team made the World Cup for the first time in 36 years. The diagnosis meant the accountant would have limited mobility if he made the trip to Russia to cheer on his team.
No chance he was missing it, though, even if he was confined to a wheelchair for the trip.
But when fellow Peruvians began a loud traditional chant at the Saransk Fan Fest, the 51-year-old pulled himself to his feet, wearing his "lucky" Peru shirt, with tears in his eyes.
"I had to be here. I feel like a messenger from Peru. It doesn't matter how far we go. We are here," said Etchevarria, who traveled from Lima to Russia. "I was at the playoff against New Zealand that put us here, and when Jefferson Farfan scored the first goal in our 2-0 victory, I wept and wept and wept."
When Peru takes on Denmark in its opener Saturday, Etchevarria plans to be among an estimated 35,000 Peruvians who have descended upon the World Cup's smallest host city. Peru's fans will likely dominate the crowd at the 44,000-seat Mordovia Arena.
Etchevarria is like most Peruvians in that he didn't believe he would ever see his team play in the World Cup. That changed last year when an unbeaten streak spanning the final eight qualifying matches not only put Peru in the tournament but made the national team a contender to advance out of Group C.
This rare appearance in the World Cup has brought Peru's fans out in full force to Saransk, a city with a population of 300,000.
Angel Carranza, like Etchevarria, spent about $10,000 to travel from Dallas, Texas, to follow Peru's group stage campaign in Saransk, Yekaterinburg and Sochi. He'll stay through the knockout phase, should Peru advance. Carranza had to sacrifice to make this trip: He sold his blue Ford Mustang GT to help finance the adventure.
"It is a high investment, but we are waiting for decades to put our money in this," the car salesman said. "It is money well spent. If I hadn't come, I would never forgive myself."
Carranza wore an Alianza Lima T-shirt and was joined by three other Peru fanatics, two of whom he had just met at a Russian airport. They were among throngs of Peruvians who dominated Saransk's Fan Fest during Russia's 5-0 rout of Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the World Cup. They sang and danced and Peru's most popular chant has been so frequently heard that locals can sing it, too.
"How wouldn't I love you? How wouldn't I love you? You are my beloved Peru, the blessed country that saw my birth," the song goes in Spanish.
Claudia Rodriguez, a 28-year-old teacher, is the rare female fan among a predominantly male Peruvian caravan that made the trek to Russia.
"I love football, but what I love more is this atmosphere showing we Peruvians can overcome our divisions," she said, wearing a red shirt and a Russian hat. "Normally we would have nothing in common with Russia, they are completely different from us in their habits, culture and language. But football brings everyone together.
"Peruvians will always love Russia from now on because of the memories here."
The fanaticism can be contagious. Regional government employee Maxim Izosimov mingled with Peruvians during Russia's game and declared Peru "my second team."
"Their fans seem more proud of their team than us in Russia," Izosimov said. "We don't hug and kiss and sing together like they do. I enjoyed being a part of their group here at the Fan Fest and I can't wait to see the others in the stadium on Saturday."
Izosimov was entertained by the antics of 28-year-old Peruvian engineer Daniel Gonzales, who is recovering from a pair of surgeries on his knee but thrust his crutches skyward to the rhythm of Peruvian chants.
"I got unlucky a first time (with his knee) playing football, then I got unlucky again three weeks ago when the same injury came back," Gonzales said. "If I have to get unlucky again, I hope it is after the World Cup is over. I am going with Peru until the end."
Etchevarria, who is still getting used to his wheelchair, said he was stirred by the sight of younger fans like Gonzales expressing as much passion for the team as he does.
"This generation deserves to see Peru in World Cup; they were losing hope," he said. "When I found I had arthritis I asked God, 'Why me?'
"Then I found out that it didn't need to take my smile, annul who I am. God gives his worst battles to his best warriors. My Peru is in the World Cup and we all needed to be here."
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel contributed to this report.