Colombian Football Stars – Playing for Peace

Colombian Football Stars – Playing for Peace

By Thomas Farines – 

In November 2013 a group of former Colombian football stars such as Carlos Valderrama and Victor Hugo Aristizábal proposed to play a friendly game in order to help the peace process in the country.

Peace talks between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were revived in 2012. The conflict between the two combatants is the longest in the Americas and has cost the lives of more than 200,000 Colombians since it began 50 years ago.

FARC – Playing football for Peace

FARC accepted the idea of a friendly game in November 2013, but it took the government, FARC, and the players involved over two years to work out all the details. The date was set for April 10, which fit well with other events that promoted the peace talks such as Peace Walks that took place across the country on April 9.

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Carlos Valderrama

Piedad Cordoba, a Colombian human rights activist, and Gustavo Petro, mayor of Bogota who also organised the Peace Walk that occurred on the day before the match, were the organizers of the game. Many former international football stars participated such as the Colombian Carlos Valderrama and the Argentinian Diego Maradona.

The recent history of Colombia is filled with conflict over land ownership, political control and drug trafficking. Probably the most brutal period is la Violencia during which the two parties who controlled the political affairs of the country, the Liberals and Conservatives, engaged in a civil war between 1948 and 1958.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia were organized after the Violencia period, after which the Colombian government with the help of the United States purged the revolutionary town of Marquetalia located in the South of Colombia. Then during the 1970s Cocaine trafficking became an important asset for Colombian cartels, leading to a violent war on drugs and corruption during the following decades.

1994 – A most Violent Year in Colombian Football

The conflict in Colombia became prominent in international politics during the 1994 World Cup in the United States. Journalists as well as the former Brazilian star Pelé saw Colombia’s national team as one of the most talented squads and a possible contender for winning the World Cup. This was in part because Colombia outclassed Argentina in the World Cup Qualifiers by winning 5-0. The pressure on the national team was high not only due to expectations but also from the death threats that players and staff received during the competition from the Cartels that controlled the football clubs.

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An own goal with consequence.

The World Cup in 1994 was the third time that the Colombian national team participated at the World Cup, having previously taken part in the 1962 and 1990 tournaments. During the 1990 Italy World Cup, Colombia managed to progress to the knockout stage where Cameroon eliminated them.

Then at the 1994 tournament, Colombia drew what was thought to be an easy group, which included the host, the United States, as well as Switzerland and Romania, a group where they should have easily qualified for the second round. On the opening day of the competition on June 18 1994, however Colombia lost their first game 3:1 against Romania led by Florin Răducioiu and the star George Hagi.

This competition, however, will always be associated with a sad day for Colombian football – the death of Andres Escobar. At the time Andres Escobar was one of the stars of the Colombian national team. On June 22, Colombia’s second game of the competition, they faced the United States in the Rose Bowl Stadium of Pasadena. In the 35th minute of the first half, Escobar deflected the ball into his own net.

Their last game of the competition against Switzerland, a game Colombia won 2:0, counted for nothing and they finished last of their group. After the squad returned to Colombia, Andres Escobar was assassinated on June 2 1994 in Medellin by a hitman connected with the drug cartels. Although the killer was jailed, the death of the star defender of Colombia is still a matter of condemnation.

It is understood that the motive of the assassination was punishment for the own goal Escobar scored in the USA game, but many parts of the story remain unclear. The most accepted motive that led to the assassination is that Escobar was killed because the betting mafia connected with the drug cartels had lost money due to Escobar’s own goal versus the US.

The Death of the Two Escobars

Seven months prior to Andres Escobar’s murder, the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar (no family connection to Andres) was killed in Medellin. At the time various cartels had complete dominion over major Colombian cities through the use of violent force, and the city of Medellin was under complete control of Pablo Escobar.

The Drug Lords also controlled all major Colombian football clubs, in Pablo Escobar’s case, Atletico Nacional de Medellin. The football stadium became another space where the drug lords disputed power and laundered their dirty money. Ticket sales and player transfers from football clubs were used to launder drug money.

While Escobar was in power of the city assassinations and kidnappings were unheard of, but following his death the city experienced a violent period. The recent history of Colombia includes examples of this violence, such as the death of candidate for the presidency in the 1990s and the kidnapping of several civilians such as Ingrid Betancourt, who was held captive for almost 10 years.

Football Diplomacy in Colombia

Before the death of both Escobars, football was seen a way to forget daily problems for the population and a safe haven with very few casualties. The death of the two Escobars changed everything. Colombia’s government publicly took a strong stance against clubs that were laundering money and even the president of the federation went to jail. This resulted in a decline of Colombia’s football, which lasted from 1994 to 2014. It wasn’t until Colombia’s successful participation in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil that saw the resurgence of football.

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Maradona’s team celebrating their victory.

Football has since become one of the major factors for Colombian unity, and this was shown last Friday during the peace match. The game was a success and 10,000 showed up to fill the stadium to watch Maradona’s team win 2:1, with one of the goals scored by the Argentinian star.

Political actors in Colombian football are not the first to use the power of sport to help facilitate peace, which is highlighted by the football diplomacy between Turkey and Armenia. Indeed the use of sport in this way can be seen on a worldwide scale, with the United Nations introducing a secretariat on the matter in 2000. Although sport is not yet a vital part in the peace negotiations between the government and the FARC, it can help break down long-standing barriers such as it did on Friday.

Thomas is an MA Student of Middle Eastern Politics at King’s College London and a member of the London based charity, Football Beyond Borders. His MA research is on the relationship between football and politics in Beirut. @thomasfarines

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