Chiclayo is far from a small backwater. Some 800,000 people inhabit this city on Peru's northern coast, but the presence in town of the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005 is still a major event. For two weeks, life here is revolving around the matches and the teams staying at the Gran Hotel. So strong is local interest that all first round tickets have sold out. Even the early morning start of the opening game (10:00) between Italy and Côte d'Ivoire did not prevent the locals from filling the stands of the Elías Aguirre stadium last Saturday, although a fair few did take their places a bit late!

The Gran Hotel has really pulled out all the stops to pamper the teams. Côte d'Ivoire, United States, Italy and Korea DPR have all been welcomed with open arms, but by arriving at the hotel six days before everyone else, the Italians earned the right to a ceremonial welcome, descending from their team bus to find their national anthem blaring out and 40 local children waving Italian and Peruvian flags. "We have assigned an attaché to each delegation according to the language they speak. Each team has its own specially decorated dining room and the menus are tailored to each country's culinary habits," explains Angie, the establishment's commercial manager.

Consequently, all of the staff have their own little anecdotes to tell about the teams. "The Koreans don't have a chef with them, so we've been giving them local dishes like the famous ceviche, which is raw fish marinated in lemon juice. They really like it as they're quite used to spicy food," added Angie.

When in Peru… do as the Romans do!
Juan Manuel, who has been assigned to the Italian team on account of having spent seven years in Rome, is thrilled to bits by his contact with the squadra delegation. "They eat a lot of pasta, of course. And ice-cream, they adore ice-cream! Generally speaking, they are highly organised and know precisely what they want." Almost all Italian customs are being strictly observed. "Every evening, they all come to drink a cappuccino at the bar," he reveals.

What is more, the delegation's supervisor comes into the kitchen every evening to check that the dishes are correctly prepared. "He even made the lasagne himself one evening, and it was delicious, so much so that the other four delegations tucked in too…" For as Juan Manuel reminds us, "if Italians don't eat well, they're not happy bunnies!"

The Americans apparently figure among the least demanding delegations. "They are really very straightforward and cool," admits Gabriela, who is taking care of them. "They make no special demands in terms of food and are really very quiet. They just stay in their rooms most of the time surfing the net," she explains. Their only slight concession to luxury has been to have an unused ping-pong table moved up from the basement to their 7th floor base. "They drink a vast amount of water and vitamin drinks but apart from that, they're easy to look after, which is great for me!", their hostess laughs.

An early morning walk in the park for the Koreans
In terms of activities, the Americans, Ivorians and Koreans have already experienced the delights of nearby Pimentel beach, despite the strong wind that freshens up Chiclayo at this time of year. So far, only the Italians have expanded their cultural horizons, by visiting the city's museum. The Koreans, meanwhile, have adopted the habit of taking a stroll in the park opposite the hotel every morning… at 06:30!

Two teams, Côte d'Ivoire and Korea DPR, have expressly asked for the televisions to be removed from their rooms, no doubt to avoid late-night distractions and so aid a good night's sleep. But the operation was not exactly straightforward as the TVs had to be unscrewed from the walls!

Ultimately though, the main entertainment for the four sides has been taking place in the establishment's courtyard, where "the children of nearby San José school gather every evening after classes between 17:00 and 18:00, hopeful for autographs, a handshake, or even a free T-shirt," explains Angie. All of the players have been only too happy to fulfil their duties as " stars", and the Italians almost provoked a riot by throwing T-shirts from their windows.

But while this incredible enthusiasm - there are sometimes up to a hundred children outside - is refreshing, it can also be a bit of a hindrance. "Sometimes, the players have to fight their way to the team bus to go to training, which is a bit much. We had to take the Koreans out the back way the other day…," Angie sighs. But looking on the bright side, at least it will help prepare the players for the life of stardom that may await them some day…