New Zealand football fans lamented the end of their World Cup dream Thursday after a 2-0 defeat to Peru, but said the unfancied All Whites' gritty display had done the nation proud.
New Zealand, rated 122 in the world, went into the two-legged qualifier as rank outsiders against 10th-placed Peru.
But a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Wellington inspired hopes that it could steal an away goal in the return leg in Lima to earn a spot at the finals in Russia next year.
No team in qualification history had ever overcome such a ranking discrepancy but optimism was plentiful at the Four Kings sports bar in Wellington as fans gathered to watch the match.
Patrons decked out in flags and footballs shirts mingled with those in office attire who slipped away early from work.
The venue erupted in the opening minute of the match when New Zealand striker Kostas Barbarouses had a penalty appeal turned down.
But fans' nerves were stretched for much of the match as Peru launched wave after wave of attack, intent on achieving its own dream of reaching the World Cup for the first time in 36 years.
Die-hard All Whites supporter Marcus Ebert said New Zealand still did enough to rattle their illustrious opponents and deserved respect for their efforts. "I'm pretty gutted, but we went in with no expectations. Losing 2-0 over two legs to the number 10 ranked team in the world is nothing to be embarrassed about," he said.
"It actually makes it even worse. If we got thrashed I could deal with that, but we came so close and I'm so proud of the boys."
Fellow football enthusiast Chris Scarrott said watching the match was a frustrating experience because New Zealand created goal-scoring opportunities but, unlike Peru, could not make them count.
"We had our chances. They took theirs and we didn't — that's life," he said.
"It didn't look like that was a difference of 112 places at all, nothing like that. We accounted for ourselves really well."
Supporters cheered the All Whites as the full-time whistle went but the mood was subdued, except for a knot of Peru fans singing and dancing.
One of them, Marita Ortiz, said she had been nervously anticipating the match all week. "I haven't been able to concentrate at work. I've been having the songs of our barras (supporters) going through my head," she said. "Today I'm so happy with the performance of the team."
Ebert said New Zealand's failure to qualify was a missed opportunity to build football's profile in a nation best known for the world champion All Blacks rugby union team. "If we'd beaten Peru to get to the World Cup it would take it to the next level here," he said.
"We'll never replace rugby as the most popular sport but it'd make us be respected and taken seriously. As a football-mad New Zealander that's what I want.”