Colombia have taken these FIFA U-17 finals by storm with a dazzling array of magicians on the ball. Chief among these Cafetero wizards is one Stiveen Mendoza, the speedy left winger with velvet feet who's been wowing the crowds in the southern Nigerian coastal city of Calabar.
"It's a part of the tradition of Colombian football to move the ball around on the ground, and to run at defenders. I think we Colombian players try to have a special relationship with the ball," Mendoza, 17, told FIFA.com in an interview from the team hotel in Tinapa, on the wide banks of the Calabar river. "But it's not magic, you know, coaches drill these kinds of things into us from very early."
Mendoza came on as a late substitute in Colombia's first match, a 2-1 win over the Dutch, and his sparkling performance in that quarter-hour was enough to earn the jinking wide man a starting spot next time out, a 0-0 draw with Iran that was halted for over an hour at the start of the second half due to heavy rainstorms. Although Mendoza's speed and trickery were stifled on the soggy pitch after the re-start, his first half antics, including a fast and furious 50-yard run that left four Iranians in his wake, had the local fans on their feet and cheering his every touch, smiles wide at the discovery of this rough diamond from a faraway land.
"That's a nice feeling," shyly added Mendoza, who plays for America de Cali's reserve team. "For me, that's the best part of football - the joy and the happiness that it can bring the people. If it's my family or the fans back in Colombia, or here in Nigeria, it doesn't make a difference. It fills me with joy."
Whether collecting a 40-yard ball effortlessly, hitting out on a mazy run up the touchline or petulantly bursting into the box with a dip of his shoulder, this diminutive sparkler fits like a glove in an amazingly talented Colombian midfield and attacking triangle - including Wlison Cuero, Deinder Cordoba and Gustavo Cuellar that works together like a well-oiled machine. "We have all been playing together for a while now," said Mendoza, who proudly models his game after Argentine ace Lionel Messi. "The coaches know that we work well together, that we understand each other, and they try to encourage us to connect."
Calabar's Cafetero love affair
There is something infectious about this Cafetero squad, who only just snuck into these finals as last-place finishers in South American qualifying, and the fans in Calabar, the place of Nigeria's first-ever football match, are smitten with the smiling, free-spirited South Americans. When their coach arrives or departs the U.J. Esuene stadium, invariably with Colombian dance music blaring from the speakers, the players, some dancing in their seats or the aisle, are met with waves of appreciation by the locals, who know a thing or two about partying and football. "We like to sing and dance; it's part of our culture," added the humble player, who began his stint with his Cali club side after his little brother, his biggest fan, brought him along to a youth team session. "It's natural for us."
Up next for the Colombians, on four points from two games and looking good for a place in the knockout rounds, is a date with Gambia. A win against the Africans, who have zero points from their two games, would assure Colombia's passage, and a draw could do the job too. "Our goal is to win the tournament here; it's a simple as that. So whoever we meet, we want to beat them. It doesn't matter who they are."
For the likable and laid-back Mendoza, any chance to pull on his nation's colours is a source of tremendous pride. "When I put on the shirt it's an amazing feeling," the winger admitted. "It's difficult to describe. I think about my family, my friends and my country and it's enough to bring tears to your eyes." It is precisely this kind of passion - and the dazzling talents of these young Colombians - that has captured the hearts of Calabar's football faithful.