On Friday, July 29, the men's Under-20 World Cup kicks off in Colombia. Known as U-20 because it's played by teenagers, this is the world's junior varsity soccer tournament. The matches don't attract a lot of attention. But they're a magnet for scouts and agents hoping to sign the next Cristiano Ronaldo or Diego Maradona.
Twenty-four 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 played every two years. There is also no media frenzy. At the Colombian team practice for its opening match against France, I'm confined to a large holding pen for journalists. But for most of the session I'm the only one there.
Still, it's a chance for Colombia to show off. The matches will be played in Bogota and seven other cities. 500 million people around the world will watch them on TV. They'll learn about Colombia's natural beauty, booming economy and improved security, even as a drug-fuelled guerrilla war grinds on. Cristian Bonilla, the Colombian team's goalkeeper, said they're proud that so many countries are participating and so many tourists are coming.
"Perhaps they will come away with a different image from what foreigners normally think about Colombia," he said.
Bonilla and his teammates will be playing for more than national pride. The U-20 is a showcase for young talent, according to Johanna Palacios, a reporter who covers soccer for Colombian TV.
"Messi of Argentina and Kaka and Ronaldinho of Brazil all burnished their credentials in U-20 games," Palacios said.
The U-20 can also serve as a dress rehearsal. Successful tournaments in Japan, the former Soviet Union and Qatar helped persuade soccer's governing body, FIFA, to award the main World Cup to those nations.
In Colombia, it was the other way around.
Juan Felipe Mejia, press officer for the Colombian Soccer Federation, said that FIFA selected Colombia to host the main World Cup in 1986, but due to economic problems and the huge cost of building new stadiums, Colombia embarrassed itself by backing out of its commitment.
"By a decision of the government, they finally decided not to play it here. So it went to Mexico," Mejia said.
FIFA was not pleased. It took 25 years for the organization to give Colombia a second chance with the Under-20 World Cup.
"It was like a big challenge because FIFA didn't trust at the beginning in us. These guys are crazy. Why are they demanding a World Cup when they rejected one in 1986?'," Mejia said.
This time around, Colombia seems prepared to host its biggest-ever international sports event. 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 ribbon-cutting ceremony at Bogota's renovated El Campin stadium, where the championship game will be played on August 20th.
Colombia expects 35,000 foreign visitors. 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.
The song is called Nuestra Fiesta, Spanish for "Our Party." It's an apt title, Mejia said, because the U-20 is Colombia's coming-out party.
"People are gonna see 'Oh, this is Colombia. These are people that are really nice. The stadiums are packed.' It's fantastic for nations like us," Mejia said. "We really want to show the world that we can do good things here."