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Can Fútbol Foster Peace in Colombia?

By Robert Valencia

The 1998 film Golpe de Estadio (“Time Out or Stadium Coup”) depicts an oil-rich town in Colombia, where the army and guerrilla forces are entrenched in heated battle. Amidst the crossfire, the town suddenly grows quiet, when both warring parties decide to watch the 1994 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, in which the Colombian soccer team historically defeats Argentina 5-0. Though fictional, the plot bears an eerie resemblance to reality. As the Colombia peace negotiations continue today, soccer has become a central protagonist in shaping the country’s perpetual struggle for stability.

On November 30, Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama, legendary Colombian team captain, recognized as one of the best players in soccer history, called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to play the first leg of a soccer game in Havana and the second leg in his hometown of Santa Marta, Colombia. The guerrilla forces accepted the challenge to play a “match for peace.” The soccer games, dates still to be determined, will take place during a peace process that, in the last 30 years, has unsuccessfully dissuaded either party from laying down its weapons.

“El Pibe” Valderrama is a revered figure in Colombia. His signature golden Afro has become a symbol in Colombian soccer. Thanks to the leverage he wields among Colombians, he has become an active figure in the peace process. As a celebrity, he participates in the “Unidad Vícitimas” program, which seeks to provide reparations for victims of FARC activities. Many even hoped that “El Pibe” would run for senator under President Juan Manuel Santos’ Social Party of National Unity. However, to the disappointment of many Colombians, Valderrama recently rejected all rumors of a political candidacy. 

The importance of soccer in Colombian culture makes Valderrama’s call to play even more prescient. After 16 years of absence from the FIFA World Cup, Colombia has finally qualified for the 2014 games-- drawing greater media and public attention to Valderrama’s position. Redefining soccer as a conduit for peace will help Colombia reclaim a sport that has historically been tied to violence and drug cartels. Drug cartels, with varying levels of involvement, have used most of Colombia’s largest soccer teams for money laundering. In 1982, for example, late drug lord Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha bought Bogotá-based Millonarios soccer club. Eight years after his demise, Millonarios’ ledgers showed illegal payments to players and money laundering. In the 1980s and 1990s, popular teams such as Atlético Nacional from Medellín and America de Cali were allegedly tied to the Medellín and Cali Cartels. Because of its ties with drug cartels, America de Cali was the first Colombian soccer team whose assets in the U.S. were frozen by the U.S. Department of Treasury. In addition to freezing the team’s assets, Executive Order 12978 or the “Clinton List” of 1999, also banned the team’ owners from entering into financial transactions with the U.S. It was only this past year, on April 3, 2013, that the U.S. removed the team from the list. Despite the fall of big drug lords like Escobar, drug cartel activities remain active in Colombia’s soccer leagues.

Violence and corruption have surrounded Colombian soccer for decades. The grisliest moment in Colombian soccer history was the murder of defense player Andrés Escobar in Medellín. Colombia was the all-time favorite to win the 1994 FIFA World Cup, but the dream of making it past the first round began to shatter when Escobar accidentally scored a goal against his own team, giving the lead to the U.S. soccer team. Because of this incident, drug cartel members fatally shot Escobar. Allegedly, the cartels gambled large sums of money in favor of Colombia’s chances to clinch the championship.

In the last few years, Colombia has seen a surge of barras bravas or overzealous team supporters known for their extreme and often dangerous hooliganism. Most of these supporters, predominately male, are from low-income sectors of large conurbations. They are relatively young, ranging from ages 18 to 30. Often before, after, or during a game, they engage in brawls that occasionally turn deadly. In light of rising violence in soccer stadiums, the Colombian government enacted a so-called 2009 “Law of Soccer” that sought to impose economic sanctions and prison time to those who fuel violence among rival gangs. Nevertheless, this law has done little to stem turmoil.

Under Valderrama’s leadership, soccer has the potential to unite a war-torn country. Though the two soccer matches between FARC and the government are symbolic at best, their message is quite poignant—that peace in Colombia is a team effort. And this message of peace is gaining traction. President Juan Manuel Santos recently announced he would seek re-election next year in order to seal a definitive accord with FARC. The next point in the peace process agenda should tackle illicit drugs and drug trafficking, given the influence these activities have had in fueling violent drug cartels and the FARC. Tackling the drug trade will prove extremely difficult, but foregoing the issue would be foregoing any chance of sustainable peace. Hopefully, sportsmanship will remind both sides of the negotiating table—and even the average Colombian soccer fanatic—that peace must bend all obstacles. From fostering harmony in the stadiums to building prosperity among the civil society, peace must be the ultimate goal at all levels of government. Just like in the movie “Time Out,” perhaps the guerrilla forces and the government will settle their differences now that the ball is in their court. 

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Robert Valencia is a New York-based political analyst and is a contributing writer for Global Voices Online.

[Photo courtesy of Matt]

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