It has taken 53 years of massacres, kidnappings and warfare but former fierce rivals, today meet only for one sport. The only game with the capacity to ignite intense passion in Colombians world over.
A peace accord was signed between the government and Colombian rebels in November 2016 following over 50 years of intense warfare, fighting, bloody massacres and multiple kidnappings. Seven months after the signing of this agreement, former FARC rebels, “Revolutionary Armed Forces Columbia” in English, turned to soccer to re-integrate into civilian life.
Note: All interviewed individuals have been given assumed names due to safety concerns.
Juan Camilo wore his rubber boots, the same ones he used for his patrols as a guerrilla. With his soccer cleats safely and securely around his neck, he went on board a “panga” – a metal boat – alongside some of his fellow former rebels. They made their way to Vegaez, a nearby village that is part of northwestern Columbia. Their mission, however, is not to have a battle with the nation’s forces. Instead, their afternoon will be filled with soccer; the sport that has continued to ignite immense passions in both war and peace.
“We used to carry bag packs of up to 70 kilos (54 pounds) and walk nearly 30 km (19 miles) every day on mountainous terrain. The first thing we always did before camping would be to use our machetes’ to clear a field big enough for soccer. Soccer continued to be part of our guerrilla lifestyle” said Juan, who had his dream of playing the sport professionally cut short with the onset of the civil conflict in the country.
53 years since the conflict started, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) finally agreed to an arms surrender to the UN, marking the beginning of a new and peaceful era for Columbia. Today, and after the treaty, FARC is busy transforming into a vibrant political party and working to reinsert thousands of its former rebel fighters into civilian life. There are even reports by sections of the local media that point to their participation in the nation’s national soccer league soon.
“We approached Colombia’s football governing body, Dimayor with a request to have two of our teams, a men’s and women’s team comprising former fighters, included in the second division. We have immense talent that can compete with any of Columbia’s top teams including Nacional de Medellin and America de Cali. Our men and women should be given that chance” Said Jorge Luis, the FARC sports director, who, due to security concerns, spoke on an assumed name.
To ensure the success of this ambitious program that will culminate with the launch of a FARC soccer team, soccer clinics have been set up in most of the 26 settlements created to help former rebels transition into civilian life. These clinics are meant to scout for talent amongst the estimated 7000 former rebels that have since demobilized. Such a club would, also, require financing and the notorious methods used by FARC to fund their war activities, including kidnappings and drug trafficking, are out of the question.
In the meantime, former fighters in most of these FARC settlements are taking part in local soccer competitions and winning quite their share. The Tumaco settlement, found near Columbia’s Pacific coast runs self-sustaining programs where players frequently sell raffles to purchase equipment and cover travel costs to various tournaments.
“We have started to observe the increased participation of local communities in these sporting events. Soccer is a powerful tool with which we can win many hearts and minds” said Raul Gonzalez, one of the former FARC commanders who is now in charge of a settlement. “For instance, we are seeing more women participate in soccer. When local women see some of our (FARC) women that were former fighters on the field, they get empowered to organize and play too.”
Recently, at the village, Vegaez, reggaeton blared in the background as various soccer teams met each other on a fine afternoon. The final game of the day was something that wouldn’t have previously crossed the mind of any Columbian. Former FARC guerrillas and members of the Colombian Army met again. Once bitter rivals on various battlefields, now, these two met without any weapons but a soccer ball.
Information and image source: Former rebels trade rifles for footballs | Espn.com