For many years, Christchurch was famous for its peaceful, idyllic, uniquely laid-back atmosphere and clear sense of identity. Its English-inspired architecture and diverse recreational opportunities helped make the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island a special place indeed. That was then. The metropolis in the Canterbury region is still as striking and exceptional as ever, but since being struck by devastating earthquakes it is now undeniably different.

Everything changed in a matter of moments at 12.51pm on 22 February 2011. The earthquake with a magnitude of 6.3 hit the city during its lunch hour, inflicting near-total destruction just five months after a 7.1-magnitude quake had caused significant damage to the area in the middle of the night. Tragically, some 185 people lost their lives and many thousands more were injured. 

As soon as evacuation was complete, the city centre was cordoned off with high fences to enable clean-up operations to begin in what became known as the “Red Zone”. Little by little, though, the deep feeling of sadness that had engulfed this corner of the globe began to give way to fresh hope.

Passion brings a new start
Although reminders of this terrible natural catastrophe are still evident almost everywhere you look in this city of 350,000 people, the impressive and captivating sense of optimism that has long infused its streets makes it impossible not to love Christchurch. After much effort and at great expense, a more modern, colourful and creative downtown area has been created, prompting renowned travel publication Lonely Planet to place the city sixth on its Top 10 Cities of the Year in 2013.

Countless huge construction sites, container-based structures and ruins reflecting the darkest moment in the town’s history have been adorned with creative masterpieces by artists from across the globe. Murals of every style have given this place a new lease of life. There is even an open-air dancefloor with speakers, lighting effects and a disco ball. A washing machine serves as a jukebox, enabling visitors to transform an empty space in the middle of the city into a nightclub for a few minutes by simply plugging in their smartphones. Gaps in the townscape have been filled with art, giving each street its own distinctive identity.

When a city that has a reputation for being an excellent host loses its heart through a disaster, it doesn’t mean we lose our spirit.

Lianne Dalziel, Christchurch mayor.

Amidst this remarkable testament to their perseverance and passion, the local population have been streaming into a stadium completed in the space of 100 days. They are keen to be a part of the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 and clearly proud to be welcoming the world to their city. The message is “Christchurch is back”, but the truth is that it never went away – and now its people are more enthusiastic than ever before.

"When a city that has a reputation for being an excellent host loses its heart through a disaster – as our earthquakes have done – it doesn’t mean we lose our spirit,” Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel told FIFA.com, explaining that the city was meant to host a quarter-final and semi-final encounter during the 2011 Rugby World Cup before both matches had to be moved to other venues in the wake of the tremor. “But four years later, we are so fortunate to be part of an event where we get to see first-hand football stars of such a high calibre in action in our own backyard.”

Excitement and pride
More than 15,000 spectators made their way to the Christchurch Stadium as stars of the future from Brazil and Korea DPR, followed by Honduras and Germany, went head-to-head on the last day of group matches. “It was a wonderful, intoxicating atmosphere,” former New Zealand captain Steve Sumner said in an interview with FIFA.com. “As a nation we’re mad about sport and getting more and more excited about football. It has to be said that we’re just unbelievably proud to be able to co-host this event here.”

Christchurch is the hometown of the former All Whites skipper, who played at the 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain and scored the first goal for an Oceanic side in the history of the world’s most prestigious tournament. “More than 10,000 people play football here in Canterbury, so naturally a competition like the U-20 World Cup has captivated the region and given our sport another boost,” explained the now 60-year-old retired midfielder, who was awarded the FIFA Order of Merit in 2010.

It’s a great opportunity for our youth to see that nothing can keep us from getting moving and playing sport.

Tane Norton, New Zealand rugby legend.

Known as the Garden City for its many green spaces and the calming presence of the Avon River that winds through it, the city has already hosted two previous FIFA tournaments. It welcomed the world first to the men’s U-17 World Cup in 1999 and then the U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2008. Although the second earthquake robbed the area of 73 sports fields, the fact that four football training pitches were provided for the participating teams ahead of the U-20 World Cup this year illustrates how a combination of determination and steady progress is enabling the city to recover from this major setback.

Back on track
Rugby legend and fellow Christchurch resident Tane Norton, who captained the All Blacks in the 1970s, made his feelings clear when speaking with FIFA.com. “Having some of the best youth sides in the world here with us and hosting these matches provides us with a priceless opportunity to show the world that this is still a wonderful place,” he explained. “It’s also a great opportunity for our youth to see that nothing can keep us from getting moving and playing sport. I’m delighted about it!”

Mayor Dalziel shares this positive perspective. “Christchurch is a city that is turning disaster into opportunity. The sense of expectancy and anticipation about what our city will become adds a layer of interest to this host city that hasn’t been seen here before. It’s so important for our city to host events like the FIFA U-20 World Cup,” she said. “We’re renowned for our passion for sport and the people of Christchurch need something to cheer about, but just as importantly, it shows the world that we’re back on track.”

The last of nine matches being played in the South Island’s largest metropolis will kick off at 16.00 local time on Wednesday as Brazil and Senegal battle it out for a spot in the final. While that may signal the end of Christchurch’s involvement in the tournament, there is no doubt that its love of football will linger long into the future. What’s more, the pride of having contributed to these finals will provide yet another incentive to finish rebuilding the city with the same passion that makes it such a special place.