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Pura Vida: A Hero's Welcome for the FIFA World Cup Trophy in Costa Rica

By:  Jay Moye Oct 2, 2013

SAN JOSÉ – In Costa Rica, passion for soccer – or football as it’s known across most of the world – starts in the womb.

Just ask Juan and Ana Murillo, who were among the more than 17,000 fans who came to see the authentic FIFA World Cup trophy last weekend at the Pedregal events center.

“When little Javier sees this picture one day, he’ll know he was here,’” Ana beams, clutching her souvenir photo in one hand and patting her belly with the other.

Football mania in the Central American nation of 4.8 million people reached a fever pitch a few weeks ago when the beloved Ticos qualified for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The timing of the trophy’s arrival in the capital city could not have been scripted better.

Fans of all ages began lining up at 6 a.m. Saturday – several hours before doors opened – to catch a glimpse of the same 18-karat-gold statue awarded every four years to the FIFA World Cup champion.

“We’re a small country,” Juan Murillo shouts proudly over the percussive sounds of a samba band. “We don’t even have an army, but today we have the World Cup trophy.”

Costa Rica was the fourth stop of the third and largest-ever FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour by Coca-Cola, an ambitious, 92,000-mile outing that will take the sport’s iconic prize to 89 countries before the tournament kicks off June 12 in São Paulo. In April, the tour will reach an estimated 1 million Brazilians alone on its final leg through the host nation's 27 capital cities.

“Our Coca-Cola campaign is about making this the ‘World’s Cup,’ so we knew we needed to walk the talk and make this the most inclusive and participatory FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour ever,” Brad Ross, who is managing the project for Coke, said aboard the tour’s official plane.

That includes visiting 52 countries that have never before welcomed the trophy – no easy logistical feat. Flying the core team of representatives from Coca-Cola, FIFA and the Ignition agency, plus a security detail, camera crew and other special guests, around the world presents an array of challenges. 

“In some of the places we’re visiting, we literally cannot land the plane because the airport doesn’t have the required runway length,” Ross adds. The team reached the first three stops on the itinerary – the Pacific islands of Tahiti, Fiji and Vanuatu – via commercial flights.

A Rewarding Experience

On the morning the plane departs on its inaugural trip from Atlanta to San José, Ross and his FIFA counterpart, Jan Schetters, are wearing black track suits, matching red Coca-Cola shirts and adidas sneakers – appropriately sporty attire considering the tour’s nonstop schedule. Both worked the trophy tour preceding the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

They say seeing the profound impact the trophy and overall experience have on people from all walks of life justifies the 20-hour work days and perpetual jet-lag.

“It’s very rewarding on a personal level to see how appreciative people are that we’re bringing the trophy to them,” Schetters says. “Traveling to 50 countries in Africa in 2010 changed my life. What you get out of it is worth all the hours you put in.”

Ross adds, “Whether you’re the president of the country or an everyday fan, no matter who you are, there’s jubilation and passion. And that’s a fantastic experience to be a part of.”

That level of excitement could be seen the minute the plane – dressed in the vibrant colors of Brazil – touched down at San Jose’s Juan Santamaría International Airport. Dozens of airline technicians and maintenance workers lined the tarmac, cell phones in hand, to film the chartered MD 83 aircraft as it taxied to a red-carpet welcome from local Special Olympics athletes and youth footballers, and a press conference featuring Costa Rican Deputy Vice President Luis Liberman. A few hours later, the trophy took center stage again during a live TV interview and a gala dinner for VIP guests.

The next two days were all about the fans. In addition to having their photo taken with the glass-enclosed statue (only heads of state and former winners can touch it), they enjoyed a live performance from David Correy, Gaby Amarantos and Monobloco – the artists behind Coke’s official anthem for the tournament – played interactive games, and watched a hologram animation showcasing Brazil and historical FIFA World Cup moments.

“It got us very excited,” exclaims Jose Jimenez, alongside three smiling friends. “We want to play football… we want to dance samba….we want to be in Brazil at the World Cup!”

All events along the global route, which vary slightly by market and run from one to three days, are planned in collaboration with local Coca-Cola teams. Consumers win free tickets via Coke promotions in countries, and clinics and pickup matches often invite young players to hone their skills with professionals.

'This is Our Home'

Unlike in previous years, the tour will continue through the holidays, with a Christmas stop in India and New Year’s Eve in Vietnam.

“Taking a few weeks off would mean skipping nine or 10 markets,” Schetters explains. “It’s important to both FIFA and Coca-Cola to bring the trophy to as many people as possible, so despite the personal sacrifices we may be making, we all know we’re working towards a much bigger objective.”

The close-knit team rotates every three to four weeks.

“We consider ourselves a modern family, and this is our home for the next nine months,” Ross says, patting a seat in the plane's rear cabin. “We have a system in place to allow everyone to jump off the tour for a bit to refresh and revitalize before returning to deliver again. You have to bring your ‘A game’ all the time, so it’s important to balance ‘go’ time with down time. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

When asked which nations they’re most looking forward to visiting, Schetters and Ross mention their home countries of the Netherlands and South Africa, respectively, but insist they’re equally excited for Israel, Palestine, Myanmar, Haiti and other markets that will host the trophy for the first time. They also expect a few surprises along the way.

“Be sure to ask us that question again in April,” Ross says with a smile.

Follow the Action

Visit the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour by Coca-Cola’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/trophytour for destinations and dates, interviews, photos, videos and other exclusive content. And be sure to follow “blogtographer” Joel Robison, who is chronicling the tour in real time at www.twitter.com/trophytour (@trophytour).