BOGOTA, Colombia – If you were surprised last year when Ghana eliminated the United States from the men’s World Cup, perhaps you shouldn’t have been. Here’s why.
In 2009, the tiny African nation won the Under-20 World Cup, the junior varsity version of the event, by defeating mighty Brazil. Several players from that championship squad were promoted to Ghana’s national team that went on to oust Landon Donavan and Co.
The Under-20 World Cup doesn’t attract much attention. But the tournament, known as the U-20, is a magnet for scouts and agents hoping to sign the next Cristiano Ronaldo or Diego Maradona. This year’s tournament, which kicks off July 29, will also provide a chance for host Colombia to rehabilitate its image as a violence-wracked nation not ready for prime time.
We’re proud that there will be so many countries participating and so many tourists,” said Cristian Bonilla, one of the goalkeepers for Colombia’s U-20 team. “Perhaps they will come away with a different image from what foreigners normally think about Colombia.”
Bonilla and his teammates will be playing for more than national pride. The U-20 is a showcase for young talent and can provide insight into the future. The star of the 2005 tournament, won by Argentina, was a teenaged Lionel Messi who scored six goals.
Other players see the tournament as a stepping-stone to the national team. “Everyone aspires to make the national team and play in the (main) World Cup,” said Santiago Arias, a defender on Colombia’s U-20 squad.
Two dozen teams, including Mali, North Korea and Brazil, will play in the three-week tournament. The United States didn’t qualify.
Compared to the main World Cup, the U-20 is small potatoes. There’s no bidding war to host the event, which is run by FIFA, soccer’s governing body. Only Colombia and Venezuela made all-out efforts to secure this year’s tournament.
In the stadiums, A-list celebrities are not to be found. Mick Jagger, Bill Clinton and Britain’s Prince William, who attended last year’s World Cup in South Africa, will skip the U-20. Also absent is the media frenzy. At a recent Colombian team practice, a large holding pen was set up on the sidelines to control the expected swarms of reporters but only a half dozen showed up.
Still, the U-20 provides an opportunity for Colombia to show off. The games will be played in Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena and five other cities and watched on TV by 500 million people around the world. Spectators will learn about the country’s improved security, booming economy and natural beauty.
The Colombian newsweekly Semana called the awarding of the tournament to Colombia “a sign of the country’s progress.”
In fact, the U-20 is often played in non-traditional soccer nations. The tournament has been held in Australia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It was only last year that the main World Cup was played on the African continent. By contrast, the first U-20 was played in Tunisia in 1977 while subsequent tournaments took place in Egypt and Nigeria.
In some ways, the U-20 also serves as a dress rehearsal. Successful tournaments in Japan, the former Soviet Union and Qatar helped convince FIFA to award the main World Cup to those nations.
In Colombia, it was the other way around.
In the early 1970s, FIFA awarded the 1986 World Cup to Colombia. But due to economic problems and the huge cost of building new stadiums, Colombia embarrassed itself by backing out of its commitment. The games were shifted to Mexico.
FIFA was not pleased. It took 25 years for the organization to give Colombia a second chance. Colombia’s bid for the main World Cup in 2014 was shrugged off by FIFA President Joseph Blatter as a publicity stunt. Instead, FIFA gave Colombia this year’s U-20.
“It was a big challenge because FIFA didn’t trust us at the beginning,” said Juan Felipe Mejia, press officer for the Colombian Soccer Federation. “But they gave us another chance.”
The U-20 is Colombia’s biggest-ever international sports event. This time around, the country is embracing the challenge.
Most of the tickets have been sold. The government and private sector have spent $100 million to upgrade soccer stadiums. Thousands of fans showed up for the recent ribbon-cutting ceremony at Bogota’s renovated El Campin stadium, where the championship game will be played on Aug. 20.
Among the remodeling tasks was the removal of massive barrier nets that rose up from the bleachers to prevent hooligans from storming the playing field. “It’s going to be incredible for Colombians to watch a soccer game without nets,” Mejia said.
Colombia expects 35,000 foreign tourists. They will be snapping up T-shirts and souvenirs stamped with the U-20 logo featuring — what else? — a cup of coffee. At the opening ceremony, Colombian vallenato singer Jorge Celedon will perform the U-20 theme song, Nuesta Fiesta.
That’s Spanish for “Our Party.” And it’s an apt title because many Colombians view the U-20 as their nation’s coming-out party.
“People are gonna say: ‘Oh, this is Colombia. These people are really nice. The stadiums are packed,’” Mejia said. “We really want to show the world that we can do good things here.”