Charming the locals
© AFP

Taking part in a competition as fiercely contested as the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011 can prove daunting even for relatively experienced young players, particularly for those national squads that have endured lengthy and gruelling journeys just to get here. Experiencing a different climate, language and culture, and being far away from the backing of their home faithful, several teams have used their initiative to come up with creative ideas and skilful marketing measures to feel more at home and get the local fans onside.

The group phase on Colombian soil has seen everything from present-giving and banners thanking the crowd for their support, to publicity events by the delegations of visiting squads. Brazil’s case was slightly different, with their warm welcome to their Barranquilla base partly due to the Brazilian legends that have turned out for local club Junior. These former Seleção icons include Garrincha, though he played just one competitive game for the club, as well as the likes of Dida, Heleno de Freitas, who turned out for Junior during the 1960s and 70s.

Argentina experienced something similar in Medellin, with the Host City and their visitors bonding over the king of tango: Carlos Gardel. The legendary performer was killed in a plane crash in the city back in 1935, which goes some way to explaining the affinity the local fans have with La Albiceleste. “The amount of affection they’ve shown to us is really impressive,” said forward Juan Manuel Iturbe. “I couldn’t have imagined it’d be like this.”

Spain, for their part, have been benefitting both from the two countries’ historical links as well as the current senior world and European champions’ status on Planet Football. Thriving on the support they have received at training and their overall warm welcome, La Rojita’s players and staff have been handing out key rings, banners and other souvenirs in return, much to the fans’ delight. “They’re always trying to motivate us and shouting encouragement,” said Sergio Canales. “We feel right at home.”

The amount of affection they’ve shown to us is really impressive. I couldn’t have imagined it’d be like this.
Juan Manuel Iturbe, Argentina forward

Those countries not fortunate enough to already have links with the host nation have not been afraid to put themselves out there in a bid to gain more support. The Cameroon camp, for example, organised a trip to the centre of Cali before their opening match to hand out flags and try and win over the fans. “What we’re experiencing here is incredible,” assistant coach Engelbert Mbarga told a local paper, when quizzed on the fruits of their efforts. “The people are friendly, they ask us about Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’o and they applaud us on our way to training.”

Following a similar approach were Saudi Arabia, who instead focused their energies on whipping up support inside the stadium for both their matches at Armenia’s Estadio Centenario. And though some locals were a touch cynical about being handed Saudi flags prior to the opening game with Croatia, the move received a much better reception in their second encounter against Guatemala. In fact, even a number of Los Guatemaltecos’ followers had joined in the waving of their opponents’ flag by the end of the match – in ironic tribute to their team’s collapse and the Saudis’ fine display in a 6-0 win.

Egypt, meanwhile, did not even need flags or presents to get the crowd on their side in their opening clash with Brazil. With the South American giants short on jogo bonito, it was the electric Egyptian trio of Mohamed Hamdy, Omar Gaber and Mohamed Salah who won over the spectators by leading the Seleção defence a merry dance throughout. “The crowd was fantastic tonight,” said the Young Pharaohs’ boss El Sayed Diaa, after the match at the Estadio Roberto Melendez in Barranquilla. “If they want to follow us to Cartagena (for our final group game), I’ll pay their travel expenses.”

Yet of all the teams competing at Colombia 2011, the title of marketing champions must go to New Zealand. Having lost all three matches on their only previous appearance in the competition at Canada 2007, they were only too aware of the importance of getting the fans behind them this time around.

“We know how much it means to have the crowd on your side,” the All Whites’ keeper and outstanding performer Stefan Marinovic told FIFA.com. “Look what happened to Colombia, who were a goal down (against France) and went on to win 4-1. That’s how powerful the fans can be. And that’s why I think that if the public takes a shine to our lads, they’ll get behind us.”

Not only did Marinovic himself try and gee up the crowd with gestures and appeals during games, all three of which were played at Cali’s Estadio Pascual Guerrero, the Kiwis also unveiled a banner which read “Thank you Cali!” after picking up a battling draw with Cameroon in their Group B opener. Having followed that up with another draw against Uruguay, the New Zealanders exited the competition after defeat to Portugal, before pulling out the banner once more and throwing their shirts into the crowd.

Despite these success stories so far, those teams still in the competition must know that in the event of a knockout clash with hosts Colombia, all previous allegiances will go out the window. Indeed, however effective their rivals’ marketing ploys, Los Cafeteros have a whole country – some 46 million people – behind them.