The tension is palpable. Everything is running according to plan, and there are just 17 minutes to go until the players walk out onto the pitch at the Ali Sami Yen Arena in Istanbul. There is a hustle and bustle in the corridors outside the changing rooms, but suddenly all you can hear is the voice of Pedro Velasquez. "They need a coffee machine - now!" says the young man from Guatemala, and off he goes to sort it out. And the officials know that if he is on the case, then there is nothing to worry about.
The 24-year-old Pedro is working for the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013 in Turkey as a volunteer, making him one of the many unsung heroes of this tournament. In total there are no fewer than 1,217 of them at the seven venues, helping to make the current edition of the second-most important FIFA tournament run as smoothly as silk.
Pedro is studying in California at the moment and hopes later on to begin a career in the sports business. He tells us he is a goalkeeper and came desperately close to qualifying for the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2007 in Canada, only for Guatemala to lose to Haiti. Six years on, he and plenty more volunteers, most of them also students, are living the dream. "I'm here to help the general coordinator and the assistant general coordinator in Istanbul," he explains. "There are so many details in each match revolving around the teams I get to look after on every match day. I watched the World Cups in 2006 in Germany and 2010 in South Africa as a fan, so it's absolutely amazing for me to play my own small part in this tournament."
The volunteers are as essential as they are multicultural, coming from all four corners of the globe. Thirty-four of them have travelled to Turkey from abroad to gain experience into how a FIFA World Cup is organised and hosted. As well as Pedro from Guatemala, there are volunteers from Italy, Haiti and a number of African countries present in Antalya, Bursa, Gaziantep, Istanbul, Kayseri, Rize and Trabzon. The experience that they will acquire, both in terms of their future careers and also in how they work with one another and across different cultures, will be invaluable.
"We're all one big family now. I've made a lot of close friends over the past few weeks," says Bensu Ozturk. The 20-year-old's eyes light up as she talks about the fun she is having as a volunteer working on accreditations at the Ali Sami Yen Arena in her home city of Istanbul. "During the day we help out and in the evening we all go out for a drink or go dancing," explains the committed Galatasaray fan. For her, working as a volunteer is "clearly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" and has had quite simply an "amazing time" during which they get to experience football up close whilst having fun with other young people.
The number of applications far outweighed the volunteer jobs available at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013, with countless people hoping for a piece of the action in Turkey. Irem Koroglu was one of the lucky ones. The 18-year-old translation student from Mersin in the south of Turkey is helping in the media centre in Istanbul and answering journalists' queries on match days. "The best part of it for me is being able to work so close to footballers," she says. "My dream is to work as a translator or as a journalist and to interview Dani Alves. I think he's amazing." And what is it that keeps her going as a volunteer? "Seeing smiles and gratitude from people on their faces when I've managed to help them – you can't put a price on that."
Some people are already old hands at the volunteering game. Karim Fathi from Egypt for example worked at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in his home country in 2009. He is looking to get into sports marketing and knows how important it is to gain on-site experience. "I applied for the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil and for the U-20 World Cup in Turkey and was accepted for both tournaments. I ended up choosing to come here," said the 20-year-old from Cairo.
In Istanbul he is working on a new innovative FIFA stand helping to show fans at the games all about what the governing body of world football actually does. "We explain to people that it's not just about football. We show them what FIFA is up to with social projects such as 'Football for Hope' and the Goal Programme. It's great to see how interested and enthusiastically people react when they find out about it all," Karim says.
Enthusiasm certainly is a key word. All of the volunteers in Turkey are fascinated by the exchange of cultures, but what is equally important is that all football fans are just as fascinated by the work carried out by the volunteers, who provide that certain something that makes this FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013 extra-special. People like Pedro, Bensu, Irem and Karim, and of course the other 1,213 volunteers at this final phase. While the stars of the future are performing out on the pitch, the volunteers are the ones who are making the tournament into a real celebration thanks to their passion and dedication. And even their ability to hunt down a coffee machine at short notice…