You always know when Colombia is playing, whether or not it’s an important game, the whole country comes out to support the national team. The streets become a sea of yellow, teachers even rearrange classes to accommodate watching the game – if it’s a home game, the city of Barranquilla (where they play) gets the afternoon off work! The whole world is mad about football but the fervent nature of Latinos makes it even more exciting – but also more dangerous. In Colombia, there is no alcohol allowed in the stadium, only the home team fans are allowed to attend matches, and wearing a club football shirt out and about could get you killed. Indeed, this tells us a lot about the hot-headed nature of Colombian people and how football plays a significant role in Colombia’s cultural history.
Colombia is a gigantic country, with 33 regions spread over 1 million km2. It’s so diverse that we have little cultural fabric that really holds us together, that make us feel part of the same country. Historically, we’ve always had little success in sport due to our lack of public investment in training and organisation. However, we clearly have the potential to excel in lots of sports because of our extensive gene pool; we are a strange mix of indigenous, African and European descent, we are a bit of everything. If we need someone who’s fast, or tall, or agile, we have someone for the job. We’ve definitely always had the talent, but the problem is that we’ve never been sufficiently prepared.
The country went crazy when Colombia qualified for the World Cup in Italy in 1990 for the first time since 1962. La selección – the “chosen team” – was Colombia. It didn’t matter that drug-terrorism was asphyxiating the country Colombia made it to the World Cup and, for the first time, the world recognised us for football and not for our mafia. Colombia made it through the team stage but, unfortunately, we got knocked out in the Final 16 (Higuita vs Roger Milla).
During the following World Cup USA in 1994, we arrived with a fantastic team, and we felt confident that we would make it further this time. Our players were extremely talented but unrestrained. We lost 3-1 against Romania. Half the players were shamelessly out partying and getting drunk the night before the match. This culminated losing 2-1 in the fateful game against the USA when Andrés Escobar scored an own goal. We were eliminated.
Colombians are a people of passion, and the things that drive us really drive us. Football drives a lot of passions everywhere in the world, but there are no fans as frenzied and ungovernable as the Latinos. We are passionate and we take it to the extreme. And that’s what happened here. The country was united in their desire to succeed in the World Cup, we had a strong team – we had a shot – which wasn’t a normal position for us to be in.
This was a time when the country was rife with internal conflict. Andrés Escobar was advised against returning to Colombia for fear of his life. However, he insisted on facing the consequences head on and move past it. Five days after returning to Colombia, Escobar was shot six times and later died in hospital.
The perpetrators were drug-lords who allegedly lost heavily betting on the outcome of the game. Drug-trafficking was really pervasive at the time – they controlled everything and permeated not only politics, but every sphere, every corner, every aspect of everyday life, including sport. The death of Andrés Escobar was a real turning point which illustrates how drugs had penetrated the heart of Colombia, rotting its core. It was soul destroying.
The death of Andrés Escobar hit us hard, and I think it really changed the country. It was really damaging for our morale. I remember when I was little, the Colombian national games were a sacred family affair. Everyone would gather for food and beers, made bets on the final score, and just for ninety minutes, forget about the violence that was destroying us from the inside out. The years went by with little success and people began to lose faith and stopped taking it seriously – many stopped following the selección altogether.
The years went by, the internal conflict declined and we started to train better players; the talent had always been there, buried under the social problems. We invested more resources in developing sport and teaching new generations the importance of being responsible, professional representatives of the country. The Colombian players, who mostly came from disadvantaged neighbourhoods from distant, forgotten regions and who learned to play barefoot with footballs made of rags, managed to combine their skills, desire and courage with excellent training from internationally renowned teams.
The appearance of incredible players like Falcao gave us that confidence boost that we were lacking and filled us with reason to believe that we were good enough to compete with the best. Suddenly the country had something to believe in, we had a common goal, regardless of our differences. The selección represented us all, each and every Colombian. We were these 11 players suffering, crying and enjoying themselves together.
Finally, in 2014, after some difficult qualifiers, we narrowly drew against Chile and qualified to go to the World Cup in Brazil – for the first time in 16 years. For the first time in history, Colombia won their group in group stages, and beat Uruguay in the Round of 16 before finally being defeated by Brazil in the quarter-finals. We did not become world champions, we weren’t the best national team that there had ever been, but we gained so much more. The internal conflict dragged on for more than five decades, our lack of common identity divided us, leaving us disillusioned and disconnected. Football, and sport in general, served as a reminder that we do have feelings that unite us, that we are more similar than we think (or led to believe) and we need to build a national identity based on what we share rather than fixate on the little things that make us different.