As a player, with clubs such as Independiente Medellin, Santa Fe, Deportivo Cali and America, Ramiro Viafara made a name for himself in Colombian football. The ex-winger then carved out a coaching career in his home country. Now the 62-year-old embarks on one of the most ambitious challenges of his career as he prepares to lead a group of Colombian teenagers to glory at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009.
Viafara travels to Nigeria, the country of his ancestors, in the hope that his young charges can build upon the potential they showed in Chile at the South American U-17 Championship. The jaunt to West Africa takes on added significance as Colombia's U-20s failed to qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009 and the seniors continue to struggle in their bid for South Africa 2010. Certainly, the nation's eyes are firmly set on this group of youngsters, which can bring its own added pressures.
"The boys are aware of the situation," he told FIFA.com. "It's not possible to isolate them, not now with so many media outlets, and the internet. But hopefully they won't let it affect them. (Senior International coach Eduardo) El Profesor Lara himself has had a chat with the team and he told them to enjoy the tournament, to think about playing their own game and nothing else."
Of course, it won't be easy for Los Cafeteros. Colombia are in Group C with the Netherlands, Gambia and Iran. "It's a very evenly matched group where there are no firm favourites. Each team has its strengths and has a chance of going through," the coach said. And Viafara knows each of his opponents well: "The Dutch live up to their reputation; their players are skilful and tactically well-organised. Gambia are a typical African side, physically strong and direct in attack. We are still studying Iran but we know that they rely very much on (Kaveh) Razaei, their key man in attack."
As for Colombia? "We are very quick and technical. The aim is to show that we are better than we were at the Sudamericano, faster and more solid. The team knows its potential," he declared.
The Educational imperative
Without doubt, the job of a youth coach differs greatly to that of a senior team coach. As Viafara himself explains: "With such young kids it can be difficult to maintain consistency. Sometimes it can take a player ten attempts to get something right, and on another day he'll get it right after two or three efforts." A good coach understands that.
"You have to bear in mind that these boys are going through a particular phase in their lives, they are growing up and their futures in the game are far from certain. They are at a very uncertain stage in their lives. For this reason we talk to them regularly, about football but also about their lives outside the game. The idea is to make them feel comfortable; that they can have their say in these conversations and that they can develop their personality off the pitch. Life presents many challenges and we want them to be ready to meet them."
"This is why we encourage their families to visit them as often as possible, that they speak to them and stress the importance of preparation for what lies ahead. In Colombia, when these youngsters first start earning money they feel like professionals and this can lead to problems. We have to create a steady atmosphere so that they stay grounded. If we succeed in this it will be reflected on the pitch," he added.
Viafara speaks from experience, coming from a large family of 15 siblings whose roots lie, as it happens, in Nigeria. "I have never been there but I'm looking forward to connecting with my roots. My ancestors came from a Nigerian tribe and I do know a bit about the country," he said. "Everything is set for us to have a good tournament. My own goal is to qualify from the group stages. If we do that we can go all the way."
Along the way he can count on an array of talent that includes Edwin Cardona, top scorer in the Sudamericano with 7 goals and experience of first team action with Medellin's Atletico Nacional. But the coach was cagey when we asked him about the rest of his team. "I don't want to say too much, in case the opposition are reading; you'll have to wait to see them in Nigeria," he says with a smile.