With its kaleidoscope of colour and unique atmosphere, this year's FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup has launched a host of different people to fame - from the tournament's emerging players and its delectable cheerleaders to the Benchabane refereeing family. However, off the pitch, there is another personality here who has been enjoying his share of media attention. His name is Roberto Santana, although everyone knows him by his moniker Bola Siete (Seven Ball), and he has made something of a career out of animating supporters.
Anyone visiting Copacabana Stadium this week and fortunate enough to come across Bola Siete - a name he inherited from a 1990s soap character - are unlikely to forget the experience. That is not just because of his size, intimidating though it is, but also because of his personality. The 40-year-old Brazilian is always the first to arrive at the stadium on matchdays, often as early as 7 in the morning, and normally the last to leave. Though you may not think it to see him, this 'superfan' is well used to spending his days in close proximity to footballers. His father, who was known in the game as Santana, regularly took the young Roberto to work with him when he was employed as a sports masseur at Vasco de Gama. "That's where I got my earliest experience of football and first got to know the players. That said, I never once imagined it would lead me to where I am today," he confesses to FIFA.com.
But what exactly is it that this imposing man with the boyish smile does? With fan violence still a problem in some stadiums, the Brazilian is hired by companies to travel to grounds around the world and spread his irrepressible humour and gusto among the fans. It is a job that has taken him to destinations as far apart as Spain, England, the USA, France, Korea, Japan, Germany and Portugal, where he made such an impact he had to sign autographs.
"I've got the best job of all, which is to enliven the fans and bring some joy to the occasion. In the past I used to do it at different events and tournaments but, since 2000, I've only been doing beach soccer. I feel a great affinity towards this sport," he says with evident passion.
"The best job"
Don't be fooled, however, Bola Siete is not just another fan singing from the stands. Here at the Copacabana Stadium he arrives bright and early, first checking everything is in order in the bar he owns. He then meets up with groups of early-arriving fans and starts to get things organised. "I make sure everyone is ok, and that the security is in place in the stands. If someone has a problem, I try to put them in touch with the organisers," he explains.
How the rest of his day pans out depends to what extent the fans interact with the real stars of the show, the players. "If the supporters are animated and making a lot of noise, that means we're doing things right," he says. However, in case things go a bit quiet, Bola Siete has a trick or two up his sleeve to get the crowd going again. "I put on a disguise, dance around, tell a few jokes just to get everyone's attention. Once we've done that, we direct their energy back towards the game."
And he does it well too. The Brazilian is already hugely popular with the fans, as FIFA.com found out on first seeing him. "The people love what I do, above all because I bring them joy. That's the most satisfying thing: seeing everyone laughing, cheering or singing. It's equally nice when a kid asks for your photo or autograph. I really do have the best job in the world!" he says with a massive grin. Although the tournament's finale is just around the corner, this is far from the end for Bola Siete. "I doesn't matter that this event is coming to end, I plan to continue doing this. I'm very closely linked with beach soccer, and I hope I always will be. This sport is all about sharing joy and happiness, and that's how I want to keep living."