How FARC and the federal government divided Colombia’s national team, players and fans

How FARC and the federal government divided Colombia’s national team, players and fans

Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Commander Andrés Urrego was to remember that distant afternoon when he and his unit had played football with a severed head. That distant afternoon beneath the sun-roasted cocoa trees of Arboleda, western Colombia, in a town where men made raspberry wine and children ate milked candies, when Urrego and his FARC guerrillas had cut policemen’s throats before crashing blood-stained volleys against a school yard’s wooden goalposts.

It took 18 years for Arboleda’s population to enact its revenge. In January, Urrego’s body was found in the same vine carpeted valley where he and his officers had, in May 2000, played out their macabre football match. No one mourned for him; rather his corpse was found under a shower of sparkling gold, red and blue confetti. The locals had decided to celebrate their very own day of the dead.

Urrego’s crimes form just part of the mosaic of violence perpetrated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the left-wing insurgent guerilla movement responsible for the deaths of 220,000 Colombians between 1964 to 2017. Yet, as Alexander Madrigal, a sociologist at the National University of Colombia noted, of all the FARC’s killings “none has haunted the public imagination like Arboleda.”

The day’s events have branded themselves upon the retinas of former FARC fighters, too. Admitting her participation at Arboleda, FARC’s Elda Mosquera could only repeat the same words over and over: “Yo iba pa’l infierno, Yo iba pa’l infierno (I’m going to hell. I’m going to hell).”

“Hell can be beautiful.” In his 1967 One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez encouraged his fellow Colombians to find beauty in even the most sordid of events. His magical realism, in which the supernatural intervenes to simplify the complex, hard-lived realities of everyday life, offered an alluring fantasy to Colombians.

Where traumatic memories like Arboleda left a population with a sense of the unexplainable, the ungraspable, Márquez taught a nation to turn to their imagination and invent magical tales to fill in the gaps. His tales of the supernatural, set in the fictional town of Macondo, put a blood-soaked Colombia on the world map of literature. “In a nation of so much pain, we need fiction to heal reality,” Márquez wrote in 2004. 

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As clouded wisps of fog descend over the emerald green mountains of Colombia’s western province of Antioquia, straddling the thick, dark mud that clothes the land below, a nation seems to be reconnecting with Márquez’s message. In the hamlet town of Llano Grande, on the morning of Colombia’s first 2018 World Cup match against Japan, retired FARC guerrillas take to the field with their former victims for a match of football. From the sidelines, the players receive warm applause from UN Peacekeepers. A man in a wheelchair, his lucky pink rabbit in hand, drums his prosthetic leg against the battered earth in encouragement.

As the ball squirts over the wet pitch, fiction once again seems to be merging with reality in this country. In Sergio Cabrera’s 1998 film Golpe De Estado, Cabrera told a romantic tale in which FARC and the Colombian military agree to a ceasefire so that both sides can watch the national team play Argentina together. As Colombia win 5-0 away in Buenos Aires, each side’s soldiers run into the streets to play a spontaneous match of football.

Today, under the auspices of the UN, Cabrera has organised this match of reconciliation to bring to life his artistic prophecy. After one side waltzes to a 4-2 victory, victims and FARC fighters join together in a marquee to watch the Colombia match. With each individual donning the electric yellow of the national team shirt, a small huddled glow of gold, blue and red radiates into the dark valley below.

Such scenes of choreographed reconciliation have become common in Colombia following the 2016 peace treaty agreed between FARC and the federal government. The open-air ceremony at which the treaty was signed amidst the coastal breeze of the northern city of Cartagena was one worthy of any Márquez novel. Three thousand guests, all required to dress in white shawls, watched on as a choir of women who had lost relatives to the FARC sang a song in honour of the guerrillas.

Such an act of magical redemption, of women who through song supposedly moved from resentment to forgiveness, was accompanied by children dressed in gold peace earrings dancing to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. The event, held just days before the 50th anniversary of One Hundred Years of Solitude, captured perfectly the book’s theme. 

“Would Cuadrado or Quintero forgive them so easily?” the headline of the Colombian daily El Observador asked its readers the next day. Juan Cuadrado, the flying winger of Los Cafeteros, was just four years old when FARC murdered his father, Guillermo. He had hid under his parents’ bed, as his mother Marcela had ordered, after hearing the gunshot. When he emerged he found his mother crying over the body of his father, a delivery driver killed in a spontaneous act of terror.

Juan Quintero, Colombia’s brightest star at the World Cup, was just two years old when his father went missing. Jaime Quintero stepped out of his home onto to the streets of Medellín for the last time on 1 March 1995. Never to be seen again, Quintero is presumed to have been killed by either FARC or a right-wing paramilitary unit.

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The question posed by El Observador reflects the unease that many Colombians feel towards the peace treaty. As reflected in the nation’s evolving literature and art, a new generation of Colombians are emerging, who wish to abandon García Márquez’s fantasy that the nation’s resentment and anger can simply be narrated way. There has been widespread disgust at the prospect that a group responsible for atrocities such as the 2002 Bojayá massacres, in which more than a hundred civilians were murdered in cold blood, will retain effective immunity from serving prison sentences.

“Colombians have a right to feel human emotions, to abandon magic and demand a less sordid nation,” the Colombian writer Ricardo Romero wrote the day after the nation rejected the peace treaty in October 2016’s popular referendum. Despite this rejection, the government simply decreed a revised version of the treaty the next month.

That El Observador chose to invoke Cuadrado and Quintero in expressing its dissent is indicative of the role that the national team play in Colombian politics. The national team is the central hook around which identity hangs. As Valencia Villa, a sociologist at the University of The Andes has argued, the unequal distribution of power between Bogotá and the country’s provinces across Colombia’s constitutional history has produced fierce regional identities that have blocked the emergence of a coherent national affinity.

The passion shown for the national team on matchdays provides a rare occasion on which Colombians put aside these regional identities aside. In a 2014 survey of 2,475 Colombians performed by the Ministry of the Interior, 94 percent of respondents said that love for football is the most important factor in national identity. It is unsurprising, then, that when asked ‘What is Colombia?’ by the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges at a conference in 1974, García Márquez replied: “Colombian is a match of football.”

Back in Llano Grande, UN Peacekeepers dish out hearty helpings of Sancocho to console their deflated congregation following Colombia’s 2-1 loss to Japan. FARC and their former victims may already have found common ground in the despair of defeat, but the choice of food is one last attempt by the event’s organisers to emphasise their participants’ shared identity. Sancocho, as the UN’s Jessica Faieta tells her audience, is a soup that incorporates ingredients from each of Colombia’s regions, from the Andean potato to the Caribbean yucca, from the condiments of the jungle to the meats of the plain.

In a metaphor worthy of García Márquez, sancocho has also been used as an adjective to describe the politics of the national team. When a Colombian team featuring René Higuita and Carlos Valderrama captured the public imagination in the early 1990s, what struck a nation was the collectivist ethos it embodied. The diverse social origins of the squad served as a perfect unifying balm in a Colombia of political factionalism, drug cartels and violence. “This team is our sancocho for the soul,” journalist Daniel Samper wrote in 1998.

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Yet, just as the legacy of García Márquez is being questioned and reworked within Colombian society, so is the role of its national team. Following the fallout of the 2016 referendum, Colombia’s political divides are increasingly being projected onto the national team.

James Rodríguez probably felt safe as he sheltered under the cover of a Ceiba tree in Parque Laureles, Medellín in September 2016. In Colombian folklore, Ceibas are seen as offering a place of safe harbour, the trees believed to hold up the sky above and the roof of the underworld below. As Los Cafeteros prepared for their World Cup qualifier against Venezuela in the nation’s most radical of cities, national coach José Pékerman would bring his squad to the park each afternoon for a moment of respite from the scorching Medellín sun.

When a journalist came rushing towards James’ park bench one Monday afternoon, photo clutched in hand, even the Ceibas couldn’t protect the midfielder from the national polemic that was about to ensue, The photo, leaked by Colombia’s right wing parties just one month prior to the October 2016 referendum, showed James posing next to the leaders of the ‘No to peace’ campaign, Andrés Pastrana and Álvaro Uribe.

That Colombia’s golden boy was pictured next to the politically divisive Úribe was bad enough. Many Colombians see themselves as the victims of Úribe’s eight-year presidency between 2002 and 2010. As allleged in documents leaked by the CIA to the New York Times, Úribe has links to the drug trafficking and killings of the narco-paramilitant Juan Santiago Gallón Henao, the latter’s gang having allegedly killed the Colombian defender Andrés Escobar in 1994. 

Of more immediate significance, however, James had broken Pékerman’s cardinal rule that players were to abstain from entering political debate. In doing so, he opened up the floodgates. Radamel Falcao and right-back Santiago Arias, seeking to distance themselves from James, appeared at a Yes campaign alongside Shakira and cyclist Nairo Quintana. Tit-for-tat, midfielders Daniel Torres and Alexander Mejia released a video backing No. A national war of words subsequently commenced in which left-leaning newspaper El País branded James a coward, to which El Observador replied asking whether Cuadrado and Quintero should also be forced to accept peace.

As political divides are projected onto the vibrant yellow of the national shirt, the latter’s ability to unite a nation is beginning to fade. Having tracked references to the Colombian national team across social media from March 2015 to March 2018, academics Andrés Cortés and Jessica Jurado have found that 32 percent of all messages now invoke the Selección so as to make a partisan political point. In early March 2015, the rate was six percent.

Susana Sierra of the University of The Andes reports that, for the first time since the early 1990’s, fans are beginning to prefer their domestic club identities to that of the national team. This has coincided with a sharp spike in fan violence between teams from neighbouring regions. In 2017, one fan died every 22 days, a rate triple that of 2015.

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In this resurgence of regional and political divisions, novelist Santiago Gamboa sees a return to “the dark valley” of Colombia’s violent past. As he describes in his essay Night Prayers, “The magical lanterns that illuminated García Márquez Macondo are one by one slowly extinguishing; all that is left is a country of blood and sorrow.” This is reflected in a national literature that is increasingly bleak and fatalistic. Open a novel by Jorge Franco or Mario Mendoza and you are confronted with stories of murdered prostitutes and mass shootings.

Macondo, however, lives on in one respect. In May 2017, when FARC announced their intention to create a professional football team that would field former guerrillas as players, join Colombia’s second tier and have Faustino Asprilla as its manager, they were met first with universal howls of laughter, then anger.

The outrage at the proposal is understandable. Fifty-three people have died over the years from mines scattered under local football pitches by FARC. Most recently, in 2015, FARC placed 430 mines under a youth football pitch in the village of Santa Rosa. In 2001 they attempted to sabotage Colombia’s hosting of the Copa América, kidnapping the vice-president of the football federation in an attempt to scare opposition teams from travelling to the country. It is of little surprise, then, that the country’s main football body, the División Mayor del Fútbol Colombiano, has rejected FARC’s request to join the professional leagues.

Gabriel García Márquez’s magical village of Macondo was inspired by Aracataca, the dusty town of dilapidated wooden houses and pastel pink avenues in which the author grew up. Yet just as the magic seems to be ebbing away from García Márquez’s Macondo of hope and reconciliation, so too does the enchantment seems to be ebbing away from Aracataca.

The village remains home to some of the worst FARC violence, a drug trade that claims a thousand lives per year and a football team that had to close down for eight years because its pitch was sprayed with mines. Aracataca’s fate seems entwined with that of the nation. When Colombia voted on 17 June to elect Iván Duque as President, a centre-right politician who has vowed to renege on the FARC peace treaty, Aracataca provided him with his highest percentage of votes.

With war potentially looming, perhaps we will look back in the future at that June 2018 football match in Llano Grande and think, of all of Colombia’s feats, that was the most magical of them all.

By Alexander Shea @alexjshea

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