Football for development and peace in Colombia

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Torbjörn Andersson
Department of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


Peter J. Watson
Football and Nation Building in Colombia: The Only Thing That Unites Us
276 pages, hardcover
Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 2022 (Liverpool Latin American Studies)
ISBN 978-1-802-07049-1

International football research has reached such maturity that studies are now being conducted at English universities, for example, on various aspects of the game in South America. Also, a Brazilian dissertation by Tiago Duarte Dias recently dealt with a Swedish-Kurdish immigrants team. An English study with a clear focus is Peter J. Watson’s Football and Nation Building in Colombia. It focuses on the years 2010 to 2018 and how liberal-conservative President Juan Manuel Santos used football to strengthen Colombia’s weak national identity after a prolonged period of violence in the wake of the country’s conflict with the communist FARC guerrilla group. The topic may seem peripheral, but it is not. On the contrary, this may possibly be the world’s greatest example of how football has been used for peacekeeping purposes in the form of various local SDP initiatives. For his combined work, of which football made up a minor part, Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.

Watson’s study is the first academic in English about football in Colombia. As such, it must start by providing a background around football in the country. This quarter of the book is also its high point and could well have been extended a bit. In return, the very detailed, and at times repetitive, review of Santos’ strategies and actions around football could have been condensed. For the general reader, such a more in-depth review of important developments in Colombian football history would have been interesting.

The whole episode brings to mind today’s global football, where the highest bidder in a morally unscrupulous world has been able to attract both world players and World Cup tournaments.

There are two events that really stand out, even in an international perspective. One is the pirate league that around 1950 meant that many of South America’s very best players, and also some English stars, worked in Colombia, and the other is the development in the later decades of the 1900s that meant that the football and drug worlds blended together – in Narcolombia – and culminated with the murder of World Cup player Andrés Escobar in 1994. These two periods, together with President Santos’ football profile for the purpose of peace, make the country’s football history far more captivating than its purely sporting aspects.

Colombia is a vast country where communication opportunities have been limited, with the result that the national identity have been far weaker than regional identities. In this context, football has been given an important role to fill, partly to safeguard regional identities, but also, above and across these, to build a national unity. The first attempt to give football this role occurred in the late 1940s. Remarkably, Colombia then managed to attract stars in spite of appalling domestic conditions, a period called La Violencia, which was de facto a civil war. The leader of the Liberal Party, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was the presumed winner of the upcoming presidential election. Instead, he was assassinated in 1948, resulting in a violent ten-year period with hundreds of thousands of casualties. The Conservative government’s emergency solution was to promote glamorous bigtime football – through the pirate league Dimayor, called Eldorado – in order to pacify the masses. The whole episode brings to mind today’s global football, where the highest bidder in a morally unscrupulous world has been able to attract both world players and World Cup tournaments. A number of great players mainly from Argentina, including Alfredo Di Stéfano, but also from other South American nations and the UK, went to what was in reality a peripheral football country. The league lasted for a few years before FIFA forced the players back to their original clubs.

Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia 2010–2018, in a March for life, March 8, 2015, Bogota. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2016, and is prominently present in Watson’s study. (Shutterstock/Gabriel Leonardo Guerrero)

Over time, however, Colombia produced its own high-quality players, such as Carlos Valderrama. The national team qualified for the World Cup in 1990, 1994, 1998, as well as 2014 and 2018. The first spell provided its own spectacular style of play, but demonstrated even more Colombia’s domestic problems, as defender Escobar, who scored a decisive own goal against the United States in 1994, was murdered on home soil, presumably by a drug cartel. Watson emphasizes that Colombia has not really had any football rivals; instead, what they’ve had to defeat has been their own negative self-image, of a game characterized by the drug industry, corruption, and crowd violence.

Not until 2014 was the situation definitely more positive. The World Cup was accompanied by a massive investment in the game at home under President Santos’ leadership. And this is something that is being carefully mapped out by Watson. Everything football-related in the president’s speeches is analyzed, as well as in his many Twitter posts. Furthermore, the legislation that has been introduced and various SDP projects, all linked to mainly men’s football, are studied. The study is both quantitative and qualitative. As a reader, you become convinced that the role of football in the unity of the nation has been unusually evident in Colombia. The country stands out even in a continent where politicians’ involvement in football goes back a long way. The difference would be that in Colombia, football in the 2000s has not been used by a dictatorship as the opium of the people, but as a more credible democratic trust builder between people, including between the FARC and the national elites.

The bottom line, though, is that this study is a bit too detailed, albeit always still interesting, which is why this reviewer would have liked to see the most important aspects succinctly summarized in an article. Regardless, it is clear that football has acquired such importance that in a country like Colombia it is an integral part of political history. The history of football in a weaker football country like Colombia can be more fascinating than in a strong football country such as Uruguay.

Copyright © Torbjörn Andersson 2023


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