"Azerbaijan has historically been a melting pot of civilisations and cultures, a place where East meets West. Holding a FIFA Women's World Cup in this country is a symbol for the region and shows people that football is open to every culture and every civilisation." Those were the words of FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter at a press conference before the 2012 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup got under way and, without a doubt, the crowds that have flocked to see matches in Lankaran and Baku have proved him absolutely right.
With an average of 7,291 spectators attending each game – a record for this competition – Azerbaijan 2012 has brought fans together in unprecedented numbers. Supporters from destinations as far flung as New Zealand, Canada, Colombia and Nigeria have travelled mighty distances to cheer on their compatriots at the crossroads of the world, and they have lit up the tournament since the start. While Gambia's fans have beat out a regular rhythm on their tam-tams, for example, the spectacle has been equally enlivened by the cheers of the Chinese and songs from the American supporters.
"Our voyage lasted nearly two days and we had to pass through Senegal, Morocco and then Turkey to get to Baku," says Fatou B. Secka, head of a Gambian contingent numbering almost 50 fans. "I don't regret having come," adds Mutar, his arms exhausted after 90 minutes spent beating a drum. "Just to see them play with a smile despite their losses is enough to make me happy."
The long trip to Azerbaijan has certainly brought rewards for these stalwart supporters, but it has required some sacrifices too. As far as Kim von Dran is concerned, however, the downside was always negligible. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says the mother of USA back-up goalkeeper Cassie Miller. Indeed, spurring on her daughter was Kim's only consideration and she drafted in further encouragement by bringing her own mother, Virginia. "We're delighted to be here, especially as the town is so great," enthuses Cassie's grandmother, draped in red, white and blue from head to toe after jetting over from Phoenix, Arizona – 11,600km from Baku.
A family affair
As for New Zealand defender Meikayla Moore, her family racked up even more air miles and in greater numbers, with her mother Donna, father Bruce, sister Dannielle, grandmother Monica and grandfather Robin all coming along for the adventure. In fact, even her uncle Phil and aunt Debbie felt they had to visit the Land of Fire, making the epic journey from Christchurch, 15,000km away. "We don't miss any of her matches," says Donna. "It's the first time we've travelled this far. In fact, you can't really travel much further than this."
Larry Pongetti, the father of Canada's No14 Rebecca Pongetti, did not have to think too long about buying a plane ticket either - his desire to show his support requiring a total of 20 hours up in the air. "I've come from Ontario and I wouldn't have missed this for the world," he says, trying to hide his nerves during half-time of the game between Canada and Azerbaijan. "I'm extremely proud of my daughter. She started playing football at the age of four and her dream was to wear her country's shirt at a World Cup. Seeing her make that dream come true means everything to me."
The sides from South America have taken strength from their fans as well, despite the continent lying on the other side of the planet. "It's the first time in my life that I've seen a match in person – and it's better than watching it on television " says 11-year-old Juan Sebastian, proud wearer of a Colombia shirt signed by every member of the U-17 women's team. "I'm Colombian but I work here in Baku for a multinational company," adds Eduardo, his father. "We haven't missed any of the girls' games. It's great that this World Cup is happening in Baku, and the atmosphere is fantastic. To see the Colombia team playing in Baku is like having a little part of my country here."