Last week, a friend asked me how I felt about Colombia playing England. I gently but authoritatively informed them that England had just been knocked out of the World Cup because they had lost to Belgium. Such is the extent of my grasp of football and its logistics. And yet, after mulling over their question at length, I have decided that I feel passionately invested in the England-Colombia match. I want Colombia to win.
I spent three months in Colombia last year and managed to avoid attending a single football game. Everyone who gave me tips for my visit told me it was mandatory to watch a match while I was there. Luckily I managed to prove them wrong, although avoiding football felt at times like navigating my way through a room full of laser beams.
I much preferred Tejo, Colombia’s other national sport, and one which has held the title for a little longer; Colombians have been playing Tejo since the 15th century, while their first official football match took place only in 1938. Tejo involves throwing heavy discs of clay across a long jump-like strip, aiming to hit small triangular envelopes of gunpowder, which explode on impact. A Colombian boules, if you will. (Originally the disc was made of gold instead of clay – the 15th century was a better time.)
It is the sport favoured by wizened old Colombian men, who sit around, enjoying each other’s company and playing gentle melodies on a guitar, conversing and softly chuckling. Occasionally they have to raise their voices over the ear-splitting explosions, which they no longer seem to notice, but which rattle the bones of any less-seasoned Tejo player. I became less bone-rattly the more I played Tejo, and soon fell in love with it. In fact, I fell in love with everything about Colombia. (Except football.)
The Colombians are World Cup obsessed. Despite being the second furthest country away from Russia – over 10,000km – more Colombians bought tickets to the World Cup than Germans. My Colombian friends tell me that there is a euphoria surrounding the World Cup that they have never seen before. Everything comes to a complete standstill when a match is on: the workday is abandoned as people gather round screens. When Colombia scores a goal, the streets resound with the honking of cars.
The World Cup has united a divided Colombia. In 2016 a referendum was held on whether to sign a peace deal with the Farc, the guerilla group that terrorised the country for over 50 years. The vote split Colombia down the middle – the No vote won by 0.2 per cent. At first I found it strange that half the country “voted against peace”. But the deal involved giving ex-Farc members ten unelected seats in Congress if they handed over their weapons. Many Colombians abhorred the idea of giving parliamentary power to a terrorist group responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. After the results, President Juan Manuel Santos revised the deal and, instead of conducting a second referendum, sent it straight to Congress, where it was accepted. Santos was then awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
While the peace deal may not be the fairytale ending Santos paints it to be, conflict has ceased. But Colombia’s state of peace is precarious. Elections have just taken place, and Ivan Duque, who is fiercely opposed to Santos’s peace deal, won by 53.9 per cent. Many now worry about the fate of the peace deal. Tensions are running high, and in a country where politics is deepening geographical, social and generational dividing lines, the World Cup is a source of unity.
Colombia’s fraught political history is intertwined with football. Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s infamous drug lord, was responsible for a golden age of narco-fútbol. He was a lifelong football fanatic – Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, Escobar’s favourite hitman, affectionately nicknamed Popeye, once recalled that the two of them were hiding in a ditch, being closed in on by government soldiers. Escobar was listening to a match on a tiny radio, cheering (very quietly) because Colombia had just scored a goal.
Hailed as a latter-day Robin Hood (or, to use the authentic Colombian term, Rovin Jud), with the billions he amassed in drug money Escobar built housing, schools and hospitals in the most impoverished areas of his hometown, Medellín. He also built football pitches. A new generation of talented footballers were formed on Escobar’s pitches, some of whom were recruited to the Colombian national football team, which Escobar pumped funds into when he realised it was money-laundering heaven. As a result the team flourished, and qualified easily for the 1994 World Cup. By this time Escobar had been arrested. He built his own (luxury) prison, La Catedral, complete with a football pitch. Colombia’s international football stars would be invited there to play matches against the prisoner and his guards.
Three months after they qualified for the World Cup, Escobar was killed. Suddenly it became much more than a competition – the World Cup became a symbol of hope, of positive international recognition for a country synonymous with drugs, violence and guerrilla warfare, and a foundation on which Colombia could now, after Escobar’s death, start to rebuild itself. But their hope was short-lived: in a match against the United States, Andrés Escobar – no relation – scored an own goal, resulting in Colombia losing the match and being eliminated. A few days later he was assassinated, his killer shouting “Gol! Gol! Gol!”, once for each of the eight bullets he fired. It is thought of as one of the blackest hours in Colombia’s sports history. Colombian football collapsed spectacularly – without the drugs money from Pablo and with the murder of Andrés Escobar hanging heavily in the air. Narco-fútbol died without the two Escobars and Colombia did not reach the latter stages of the World Cup again until 2014.
But now Colombian football is starting to rebuild itself. In 2014, they reached the quarter-finals, and this year, they will do so again – if England don’t stand in their way. The World Cup is a source of unity in a divided country, a source of hope for a brighter future. I don’t want England to take their chance of fútbol glory away from them.
This article was amended on 4 July 2018 to correct a statement that Colombia did not make it to a World Cup for two decades after 1994. They participated the 1998 World Cup, but were knocked out in the group stages.