Up until the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005 in September and October, the Peruvian city of Iquitos was most famous as the starting point for river adventures along the Amazon. Countless thousands of travellers set off from there every year to journey into the heart of the 80 million hectare Peruvian jungle to see the exotic variety of animal and plant life. On the banks of the Amazon, a whole host of villages and towns have built up around Iquitos over the past centuries, creating different communities such as the Cocamas, Witotos, Boras, Ticuna and Indigenas tribes, where traditional customs are kept very much alive.
Iquitos was founded in 1747 by the Jesuit priest José Bahamonde and is the capital of the Loreto province as well as being the largest city in the Peruvian jungle. It is a mere 90-minute flight from the capital, Lima, but it is easy for travellers to imagine that they have landed in a different country. Away from the hectic city life, the 300,000 inhabitants of Iquitos, small in stature and with dark Indio features, seem to walk the streets at a slower pace than their counterparts in Lima. Not only does Iquitos have an extreme climate, with travellers being struck by the damp sultry heat as soon as they step off the aeroplane, but the city is spectacularly green and provides a breathtaking sight for locals and visitors alike.
Iquitos thrived towards the end of the 19th century during a boom in the rubber industry. People came in droves from the USA and Europe seeking their fortune. One of them, a certain Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, was even immortalised on celluloid in the Werner Herzog film "Fitzcarraldo". The city's most famous building is the "Iron House" in the Plaza de Armas, built by Gustave Eiffel for the Paris World's Fair in 1889 before a rubber magnate had it transported piece by piece and then reconstructed in Iquitos. The building offers the best and most peaceful view of the square, away from the buzz of the countless rickshaw-style motor taxis which zoom around like agitated bumble bees.
What few people would have expected a few months ago before the tournament began, however, is that green expanses of a different variety, namely football pitches, would fascinate the locals to such an extent for a few weeks. The 25,000-seater Max Augustin Stadium, now the most modern in the country, was built in record time thanks to the sacrifices of those who worked on it around the clock. It is the city's pride and joy.
During the competition, the citizens of Iquitos did not merely become passionate football fans, they also showed that "fair play", and for that matter solidarity and a sense of community, are not just empty phrases. The locals created a unique and unforgettable atmosphere in and around the stadium which was appreciated by players and delegations alike. They also cheered on all of the teams in equal measure, thinking nothing of the stifling heat and humidity.
Fair play comes to the fore
Despite the fact that in the first game to be held in Iquitos, hosts Peru lost their decisive group match 2-0 to Costa Rica and thus made an early exit from the tournament, the spectators still took it upon themselves to applaud both teams equally at the final whistle.
In the quarter final between Korea Republic and Brazil four days later, they were just as committed in their support of the supposed Asian underdogs. This was their first opportunity to appreciate top level international football and if it had been up to them, the game would have gone on all night. It was a just reward, therefore, when it went to extra time. The favourites struggled throughout the match but finally came out on top after 120 minutes of tough football played in high temperatures and humidity.
One particular incident will no doubt stay long in the memories of fans at the game, when 25,000 voices chanted "Queremos la final" ("We want the final here!"), showing what football had come to mean to the people of Iquitos. Players and delegates alike were equally effusive on their return about the warm-hearted welcome they had received in Iquitos.
FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter also made a point in November of writing a personal letter to the Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo Manrique, thanking the Iquitos footballing community for their "fantastic support in the organising of the tournament" and their "behaviour towards all the teams which took part". "FIFA is therefore giving its 2005 Fair Play Award to the footballing community of Iquitos."