Farc gueril­las’ new game: ‘Foot­ball can be an im­por­tant tool in Colom­bia’s rec­on­cil­i­a­tion’

Now the guns are fi­nally si­lenced after 53 years of con­flict, the Marx­ist group­ing which was for­merly one of the most pow­er­ful and feared set of rebels in the world wants to have a pro­fes­sional team. Carl Wor­swick re­ports

The Guardian - Sport - - Football -

Asix-hour drive south of the Colom­bian cap­i­tal, Bo­gotá, across scorched plains and through twist­ing passes stretched along high An­dean peaks, a dozen men kick a bat­tered foot­ball across a strip of land clogged with mud and stones. On the side­lines a man slumped in a wheel­chair clat­ters his pros­thetic leg against the frame. A woman stand­ing be­side him howls at the ref­eree. She is clutch­ing a rab­bit. A ri­fle peeps from the bun­dle of white fur.

As the rain be­gins to lash down, the kick-and-rush played at break­neck speed con­tin­ues un­abated. It’s an ugly spec­ta­cle and yet, for the 200-strong crowd in this war-weary cor­ner of Colom­bia, the aes­thet­ics are not a pri­mary con­cern. Most are here to wit­ness the first stut­ter­ing steps in a his­toric trans­for­ma­tion: that of the world’s first pro­fes­sional foot­ball team made up of for­mer guer­rilla fight­ers.

A year ago ev­ery­one was still at war but last Novem­ber a peace deal was signed with the gov­ern­ment and the west­ern hemi­sphere’s long­est-run­ning con­flict came to an end. For the left-wing Fuerzas Ar­madas Revolu­cionar­ias de Colom­bia guer­rilla group, or Farc, the Marx­ist strug­gle has since taken a new di­rec­tion and foot­ball is play­ing a lead­ing role.

“Foot­ball has al­ways been very pop­u­lar within the Farc and so we de­cided to start our own pro­fes­sional team,” Jei­son Yepes says. “Ev­ery­body’s ex­cited.” Yepes is the pres­i­dent of the Farc’s sports com­mit­tee at the Me­se­tas camp, one of 26 tem­po­rary in­stal­la­tions set up un­der the watch of the United Na­tions to fa­cil­i­tate the rein­te­gra­tion into civil­ian life of more than 7,000 Farc mem­bers.

Week­end tour­na­ments hosted through­out Colom­bia at dif­fer­ent Farc camps have helped get for­mer guer­rilla fight­ers in­volved in sport and tap into a burn­ing en­thu­si­asm for foot­ball. These events are also serv­ing to iden­tify po­ten­tial play­ers.

“There are 16 teams play­ing in this tour­na­ment and so the idea is to start look­ing at tal­ented play­ers with a view to se­lect­ing one or two for regional tri­als,” Yepes says. “The very best from ev­ery re­gion will go on to form the team.”

Hun­dreds of miles south-west in the war-plagued Cauca re­gion, it’s a sim­i­lar story. Ev­ery week­end over the past few months male, fe­male and kids’ teams have been com­pet­ing in Farc-or­gan­ised tour­na­ments. Per­haps most im­por­tantly, after five decades of war, these sport­ing events are also help­ing to heal wounds and bring com­mu­ni­ties to­gether.

“The Farc have sev­eral teams com­pet­ing here at La Elvira but we also have sides from lo­cal Afro-Colom­bian com­mu­ni­ties, in­dige­nous teams and mixed sides made up of the Farc and civil­ians,” says a for­mer com­bat­ant, Ju­lian Ca­ballero, who was once on the books of the top-flight Colom­bian team De­portivo Cali.

As part of the gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment to the rein­te­gra­tion process, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Colom­bia’s sports body, Cold­e­portes, are run­ning sports and phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes in the camps. “We have 61 peo­ple work­ing across the whole coun­try,” says the pro­ject co­or­di­na­tor, Gisela Gómez. “Our ob­jec­tive is to get peo­ple in­volved in as many types of recre­ation as pos­si­ble, but clearly it’s foot­ball they love the most.”

Tucked in wild countryside deep in for­mer Farc ter­ri­tory, La Elvira camp in Cauca has be­come the fo­cal point in ef­forts to get a Farc team off the ground. The camp’s com­man­der, who uses the alias Wal­ter Men­doza, is a wiz­ened fighter with 37 years’ ser­vice in the Farc. He was once a prized tar­get for the gov­ern­ment but this year he was named the Farc’s head of sport. He im­me­di­ately put foot­ball at the top of his list of pri­or­i­ties.

“Be­lieve me, there is a lot of tal­ent in the Farc, not just for foot­ball but also in the arts, vol­ley­ball, other sports, mu­sic and cul­ture,” he says. “Clearly, though, foot­ball is what gets ev­ery­one ex­cited and so that’s why we are ex­plor­ing the idea of putting to­gether a pro­fes­sional team to com­pete in the sec­ond di­vi­sion.”

Like many Farc mem­bers, Men­doza sup­ports Atlético Na­cional, the Copa Lib­er­ta­dores champions and ar­guably Colom­bia’s most pop­u­lar team. He lists the for­mer Na­cional striker Faustino Asprilla as “a long-time per­sonal friend” and claims Asprilla, along­side other for­mer Colom­bian stars, is help­ing col­lab­o­rate with the pro­ject.

Fur­ther­more, Men­doza re­veals that a youth coach, who spent more than 10 years work­ing at a lead­ing Colom­bian side in the morn­ing and as an un­der­cover Farc mili­tia mem­ber in his spare time, has been a key con­tact in knock­ing on doors and build­ing al­lies.

But nei­ther can claim the idea as their brain­child. That credit falls to Felix Mora. A hu­man rights lawyer and avid fan of Bo­gotá’s big­gest foot­ball team, Mil­lonar­ios, he be­gan five years ago to ex­plore a way of bridg­ing both pas­sions.

“Let me be clear, this is not a Farc team,” Mora says. “This team, La Paz FC, will in­clude ex-Farc fight­ers and any­one con­sid­ered a vic­tim of the con­flict. They will be on the same team fight­ing for a com­mon goal.”

La Paz Fút­bol Club be­gan as an idea that brewed for sev­eral years. Mora made calls and scrib­bled let­ters but rarely did he re­ceive an an­swer. That was un­til the doors of peace swung open last year. Fol­low­ing a plebiscite on the peace deal in Oc­to­ber that was nar­rowly re­jected by the Colom­bian peo­ple, the No­bel peace prize win­ner Juan Manuel San­tos and the Farc chief, alias Ti­mochenko, sub­mit­ted a re­vised deal that was ap­proved by con­gress a month later. The guns fell silent after 53 years. Sud­denly peo­ple be­came in­ter­ested in Mora’s ini­tia­tive.

In April Mora trav­elled to La Elvira to meet Men­doza and thrash out a deal. “That was tough, hav­ing to go out there into the sticks and be forth­right with a top Farc com­man­der that this had to be a joint pro­ject in­volv­ing any­one who has been touched by this war, as a way of unit­ing Colom­bians.”

Tem­pers flared and de­bate con­tin­ued deep into the night but a loose out­line was drawn up to form three teams: a men’s XI for the Colom­bian sec­ond di­vi­sion, a women’s team for the fledg­ling Colom­bian women’s league and an un­der-20s side. The aim, ini­tially at least, was to have all three teams com­pet­ing by 2018.

Mora’s pro­ject quickly ran into trou­ble. Be­sides the lo­gis­ti­cal night­mare of se­lect­ing a team from the best play­ers from the Farc and more than 8,000,000 reg­is­tered war vic­tims lo­cated in some of the most in­hos­pitable cor­ners of Colom­bia, re­sis­tance from pow­er­ful sec­tors of so­ci­ety be­gan to de­rail am­bi­tions; most strik­ingly from the coun­try’s main foot­ball body, the División Mayor del Fút­bol Pro­fe­sional Colom­biano (Di­mayor).

Colom­bia has 36 pro­fes­sional teams split into two di­vi­sions, with each club af­fil­i­ated to Di­mayor. In or­der to en­ter the Colom­bian league, La Paz FC have two op­tions: to buy out one of the ex­ist­ing teams or to per­suade Di­mayor to ex­pand the league by mod­i­fy­ing its statutes.

If the first op­tion is prob­lem­atic be­cause of the huge sums of money needed to ob­tain a team’s li­cence (es­ti­mated to be at least £5m), not to men­tion find­ing a club in­ter­ested in sell­ing, the sec­ond idea is even more rid­dled with knots.

Through­out the 1980s and 90s Colom­bian foot­ball was ruled by drug barons such as Pablo Es­co­bar, who saw clubs as a ve­hi­cle to pam­per egos and wash dirty money. Ref­er­ees were mur­dered, ti­tles were bought and play­ers lived in fear.

Un­der heavy pres­sure from the gov­ern­ment, much has changed and foot­ball has cleaned up its act. These days, most clubs are reg­is­tered as plcs with share­hold­ers sub­ject to strin­gent back­ground checks.

Di­mayor though re­mains full of au­to­cratic club pres­i­dents deeply hos­tile to the Farc. In or­der to change Di­mayor rules and al­low ex­tra teams, this tightly knit old boys’ club will need to take a ma­jor­ity vote and the chances of 19 or more pres­i­dents vot­ing in favour look slim.

“I com­pletely re­ject the idea,” says the for­mer player and ul­tra right-wing Boy­acá Chicó FC owner, Ed­uardo Pi­mentel. “Colom­bian foot­ball should not be get­ting down on its knees in front of the Farc.”

Di­mayor has of­fi­cially taken a more con­cil­ia­tory stance, ar­gu­ing dis­cus­sion must first open with the gov­ern­ment in or­der to an­a­lyse the scope of the post­con­flict agenda in help­ing in­cor­po­rate guer­ril­las back into civil­ian life. Pri­vately, though, the con­tro­ver­sial pro­posal has failed to win sup­port. “This is some­thing that has never hap­pened be­fore,” said a for­mer Di­mayor rep­re­sen­ta­tive. “Hon­estly, I think it would be very dif­fi­cult.”

Over the past few weeks Mora has sought to en­gage the press and spark de­bate about the pro­ject, so much so that even the for­mer Colom­bian pres­i­dent Ál­varo Uribe stormed into the de­bate. “It would be an em­bar­rass­ment,” the rightwing politi­cian said. “After all Colom­bia’s ef­forts to rid drug traf­fick­ing from foot­ball, the Farc are now going to have their own team. It’s non­sense.”

Uribe’s de­scrip­tion of La Paz FC as a uniquely Farc team has be­come a com­mon theme. While un­der­min­ing Mora’s at­tempts to build a team in­clud­ing all ac­tors in the con­flict, this fo­cus has also an­tag­o­nised the Farc, which feels Mora is speak­ing on its be­half with­out au­tho­ri­sa­tion. A rup­ture was im­mi­nent.

Fol­low­ing weeks of si­lence, a few days ago the Farc ap­pointed Edgar Cortes, a for­mer direc­tor at the nine-times Colom­bian champions Santa Fe, as the group’s spokesper­son for sport. He wasted no time in dis­solv­ing the part­ner­ship.

“We have de­cided to rule out the pos­si­bil­ity of work­ing with this team La Paz FC. It’s a pro­ject that didn’t take into ac­count what we wanted,” Cortes says. “We will in­stead be fo­cus­ing on de­vel­op­ing our own foot­ball pro­ject.”

Pro­vi­sion­ally la­belled Fút­bol Paz Farc, the for­mer guer­rilla or­gan­i­sa­tion’s new plan is to set up coach­ing schools in ru­ral ar­eas long aban­doned by the state. While the goal of com­pet­ing pro­fes­sion­ally in the Colom­bian league re­mains, Cortes ar­gues the Farc must first show they can per­form at regional level.

“Our main pri­or­ity is to work with the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple in Colom­bia in zones that were heav­ily af­fected by the con­flict. The Farc will be the axis of this pro­ject but it will be a plu­ral­is­tic ini­tia­tive open to ev­ery­one in the coun­try.”

Cortes has tapped into his con­tacts and se­cured pre­cious sup­port from foot­ball au­thor­i­ties. Dur­ing a re­cent meet­ing held with Di­mayor’s pres­i­dent, Jorge Per­domo, the foot­ball body agreed to help the Farc in ar­eas of coach­ing and lo­gis­tics. “Our fo­cus will now be on de­vel­op­ing young play­ers and the un­der-20s,” Men­doza says. “But this sup­port also gives us a real chance of one day hav­ing a pro­fes­sional team.”

Cortes’s strat­egy will now be to fo­cus on the Farc’s tra­di­tional strongholds in the countryside, while hop­ing for a grad­ual soft­en­ing of at­ti­tudes within foot­ball’s hi­er­ar­chy to the for­mer state en­emy.

For Mora and La Paz FC, he main­tains that the door re­mains open to the Farc but ad­mits their with­drawal has been a blow. Nev­er­the­less, he will press ahead. “This is a long and com­pli­cated process,” he says. “But our idea is sup­ported by the gov­ern­ment and this is recog­nised in the coun­try’s peace agree­ment. That’s im­por­tant.”

Whether two post-con­flict teams can sur­vive and be wel­comed in a still deeply polarised coun­try re­mains to be seen. But with an­other fledg­ling idea also reg­is­tered with Di­mayor aimed at bringing pro­fes­sional foot­ball to Tu­maco, one of the ar­eas worst hit by the con­flict, there is clearly an ap­petite to use foot­ball to unite bat­tlescarred com­mu­ni­ties.

Foot­ball alone will not pro­vide all the an­swers to build­ing a brighter Colom­bia but in set­ting an ex­am­ple of how for­mer en­e­mies may put their dif­fer­ences aside and move on, it could help rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Not so long ago the Farc was one of the most feared rebel groups in the world. Now, for­mer fight­ers muse that the only shots fired in the fu­ture will be on goal.

Colom­bian foot­ball should not get down on its knees in front of the Farc

The Farc wants to spread the game to ar­eas not catered for by Colom­bia’s gov­ern­ment, such as this match at a camp in Me­se­tas Carl Wor­swick

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