Fans who light up the game

To emerge victorious from a tight encounter, all teams need is that little bit extra. On one day, it might take the form of an individual piece of skill, whereas on another, the hand of fate might intervene. But often, it is the crowd that motivates the players to dig deep and decide the destiny of a match.

On every continent you will find fans who, either through their historic exploits or downright eccentricity, enjoy a level of fame not dissimilar to that of their onfield heroes. FIFA.com presents a selection of these '12th men'.

Cometh the hour, cometh the fan. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in Brazil, a footballing powerhouse where the beautiful game is not just a passion but a fully-fledged religion. It scarcely ranks as a surprise that this country is home to some of the most charismatic supporters. And paramount among these is one Pai Santana, a former masseur who will forever remain part of the collective heritage at Vasco da Gama.

Before becoming one of the club's most high-profile fans, Santana had proven to be the most esoteric of physiotherapists. To aid his beloved team, he would commonly recite magical incantations. Whenever Vasco prevailed, he used to cross the entire pitch on his knees (clad completely in white) in order to give thanks to the heavens.

Later, as he advanced in years, he supported his side from the stands, becoming the inspiration for that most legendary of beach soccer supporters, Bola 7, the larger than life Seleção fan now seen on beaches the world over.

At rivals Sao Caetano, the Bengala Azul is a fans club with a real difference. The exclusive preserve of the over-60s, this group remains one of the most colourful and noisy of the numerous parties which ensure a red-hot atmosphere at the Estadio Anacleto Campanella.

Raulito or Rivermóvil?
Not far from Brazil, Argentina gives its neighbour a good run for its money when it comes to wild and wacky football lovers. Even at this level, the rivalry rages fiercely between the two giants of Buenos Aires, River Plate and Boca Juniors. For the Millonarios, Miguel Aguirre, 53, is top of the heap. For 12 years now, he has been taking to the wheel of his Rivermóvil (a model 80 Falcon painted completely in the club's colours, engine included...) to attend every match at the Monumental.

But ask any of the Xeneizes' followers and they will tell you that Aguirre is not a patch on their most fervent fan, La Raulito. Maria Esther by birth, this female fanatic inspires awe as much for her difficult life (a street child who has had spells in prison and currently resides in a psychiatric hospital) as for her indomitable enthusiasm.

"No one has ever pushed me towards Boca. I've always known that these colours would bring me great joy," she said. "In 1975, a film was even made about her life by the Chilean director Lautaro Murua.

Still down in South America, Los Cafeteros never go anywhere without El Colé. Sporting his condor costume in evocation of Colombia's national symbol, this is a fan who gets up close and personal with his beloved team, even popping up in the dressing room to give a pep talk from time to time.

His face and wings are generally adorned with messages of peace. Ecuador, meanwhile, sadly waved goodbye in July 2007 to one Julio Espinoza, aged 81, alias El Hombre de la Campana, a diehard supporter of both the national team and Barcelona SC.

Over in Mexico, El Gordo Ordonez has been Cruz Azul's number one fan for 40 years, while Julio Sotelo, or El Rayo Mayor (a reference to the nickname of rivals Necaxa), cheered on his club in colourful style for over 60 years before sadly passing away in 2006.

This role has brought me more than my fair share of problems: my wife divorced me and I've had money worries, but it's the only life for me.
Manolo, Valencia and Spain fanatic

Across the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, few aficionados of European football will not be familiar with the legendary Manolo, el del Bombo (Manolo, with the drum). Owner of a bar located opposite Valencia's Mestalla ground, Manolo transports his drum wherever Valencia or the Furia Roja play. Moreover, he has been doing so for 32 years.

" I do what I want, when I want, which is a great luxury. People have shown me great affection for so many years. No, I really wouldn't change for all the tea in China."

So widespread is Manolo's fame that the Turk Ethem Ozenrenler, 67, a big fan of German club Borussia Monchengladbach, even adopted the same moniker during the 1980s, when he and his bongo drum used to spur on Toni Polster and Co.

Granny power
At the heart of sunny Andalusia, Concha, La abuela del Betis (The Grandmother of Betis), has been roaring on Real Betis for decades. With her outspoken approach and strong Southern accent, this grandmother invariably has journalists in her thrall when she turns up at the stadium in her green and white gear.

French granny Lolette, however, prefers a fetching navy blue and white outfit, for she is a fan of Bordeaux. In fact, she has not missed one of her team's matches since 1962, as she confirmed readiy to FIFA.com. "Today is a matchday. I don't have time to stand around here. I've got to get off to the stadium.

"I'll never forget the Aime Jacquet-Claude Bez period in the 1980s. Our team included Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana, Rene Girard... One of the finest matches I've ever seen was the Bordeaux-Juventus European Cup tie in 1985 (2-0 to Bordeaux)."

I got the chance to meet him after the game and asked him for his shirt, but he'd already given it to someone. But a week later, he sent me another one, signed.
Bordeaux fan Lolette on asking Zinedine Zidane for his shirt

Like any self-respecting grandmother, Lolotte is firm but fair with her little ones. "When they play like twits, I give them a mouthful. But they just laugh, so I don't think they're that bothered."

What is more, such devotion does not go unrequited, as three years ago, in honour of her 70th birthday, some of the Bordeaux players clubbed together to offer her three days in Madrid at the time of the clásico between Real and Barcelona.

The idea was to afford her a rare chance to see a former member of her brood who had gone on to become a megastar since flying the nest in Le Haillan: a certain Zinedine Zidane. "

"It's the only one I've had framed to display in my flat." The only one out of a collection of almost 60 shirts and some 5,000 autographs.

Finally, no tour of football's most unusual fans would be complete without taking a peek into the cradle of the modern game, England. Although sometimes vilified, English supporters are often the most extreme in their commitment.

One such obsessive is Paul Gregory, a fan of Sheffield Wednesday better known as Tango Man. Having come to prominence during the 1990s courtesy of his giant orange hand, he thinks nothing of braving the chill of winter to wave on his heroes - usually bare-chested. He is now firmly established as the figurehead of the most raucous band of Wednesday supporters, accompanied by his doppelganger, albeit a few kilos lighter and appropriately dubbed Diet Tango Man.

Without supporters, a team is next to nothing. But with the fans on their side, they can scale giddy heights. So whether eccentric or excitable, quiet or quirky, every last one is like gold dust.