Traveling in everything from battered camper vans to luxury cruise ships, Latin American soccer fans have converged on a World Cup like never before. They’re lifting up their teams in the process.
In the region’s first tournament since 1986, Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Costa Rica already advanced from the group stage at the expense of the likes of defending world champion Spain and former winner England. Brazil and Mexico compete today to join them in the round of 16.
Fans are contributing to about $1.8 billion of World Cup-related spending by tourists, according to the Brazilian government, and their noisy support is also stoking the performance of their national teams, according to Colombia midfielder Juan Quintero. Argentina, Colombia and Chile had as many as 30,000 fans at their games.
“We feel like we’re at home,” Quintero said. “It gives us a boost.”
For Latin Americans, the Brazil World Cup is an easier trip than usual. The last two editions were in Germany and South Africa and the next are scheduled for Russia and Qatar. With stadiums accessible by road and short-haul flights, there have never been so many Latin Americans at a World Cup, according to Fernando Sobral, vice president of the Uruguayan soccer federation. There are about 15,000 Uruguayans in Brazil, ten times more than at the 1986 contest in Mexico, he said.
It’s “not just for the elite anymore,” Sobral said.
About 3,000 Mexicans pulled in to the port city of Fortaleza on a luxury cruise ship for a match against Brazil, with another 2,000 arriving on charter flights. Colombian groups traveled across the border and through the Amazon rainforest on riverboats, according to tourism officials in Manaus. Argentines, Chileans and Uruguayans made road trips to Brazil lasting as long as six days.
Fans gather outside Maracana stadium where the first 2014 World Cup match for Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Sunday, June 15, 2014.
Pensioner Graciela Carranza and husband Carlos Stival, a civil engineer, covered 1,800 miles in a motor home from Cordoba, Argentina, to Belo Horizonte with three friends for a June 21 game against Iran.
“This is like a one-bedroom flat, we have everything here,” Carranza, 64, said outside the vehicle. “It was beautiful to find so many Argentines. It is and it will be an unforgettable experience.”
Jose Mauricio, a company coach and public speaker, traveled from Medellin to Brasilia to see Colombia beat the Ivory Coast and advance to the round of 16 for the first time since 1990.
“Soccer is a party,” Mauricio, 44, said as he took in the atmosphere at the match.
Brazil said it expected 500,000 foreign visitors to come for matches and spend an average of about $2,500 each on everything from gasoline to hotels and meals.
The country’s tourism ministry may have underestimated the influx of Latin Americans. Many have traveled without tickets: police detained 85 Chileans for trying to storm into a sellout crowd at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium.
The ministry said it’s trying to seduce first-time visitors like Colombian fan Mauricio into returning to Brazil. Mauricio said he may bring his family for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The support from traveling fans is supplying extra adrenaline to teams from the region, according to players. Argentines massed in Belo Horizonte’s Savassi neighborhood to sing patriotic songs before the game against Iran. A few brawled with Brazilians in the stadium, and went looking for a fight afterwards. Mexican fans, some sporting outsize sombreros and wrestling masks, serenaded players outside their Fortaleza hotel.
“Every time we play, the stadium is practically full of Argentina supporters,” Argentina defender Pablo Zabaleta said. “This is fantastic for the team.”
Backed by fans painted in Costa Rica’s red, white and blue colors in Recife, Los Ticos beat four-time champion Italy 1-0 on June 20 to advance to the round of 16 for the first time in 24 years. Chile ousted Spain with a 2-0 victory and Uruguay downed England 2-1.
Brazilians, many who trekked from other parts of the country, sang their national anthem so loudly before a match against Mexico that playmaker Neymar wiped away a tear as he stood in line with teammates. They sang the anthem long after the music had stopped.
“There is a passion that is close to fanaticism” among Latin American nations, Raul Madero, the physician for Argentina’s 1986 World Cup-winning team, said. “Sometimes that is good because it inspires players, but players can also become paralyzed with pressure.”
It’s not just the fans who are giving Latin American teams an edge, according to Italy’s coach Cesare Prandelli. Players from the region are more accustomed to competing in a tropical climate, he said. Temperatures reached about 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in Manaus and Recife. Local players have a more “explosive” style that is more effective under such circumstances, Prandelli said. Some games in southern Brazil are being played in much cooler temperatures.
European teams have never dominated in Latin America: all six tournaments in the region since 1930 were won by Brazil, Argentina or Uruguay.
To be sure, South American teams started off well at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa only to falter. Uruguay was the only nation among four South American quarterfinalists to make the final four. Teams can burn themselves out during the monthlong event, Madero said.
“One World Cup game is as sapping as 20 games in a normal championship” because of the tension, Madero said. “You can’t have players at 90 percent of peak performance at the start.”
England coach Roy Hodgson said he expected “some good football to come” from European teams. For now, though, the Latin American teams are on a patriotic high.
“We’ll go as far as we can together,” Colombia midfielder Quintero said. “We know we are representing our country.”