Protests have picked up in Colombia over social inequality and police violence. Football has become a symbol of the crisis, which has led to Colombia losing the right to cohost the Copa America.
It took more than an hour to complete the first 45 minutes of the match in the Colombian port city of Barranquilla as play in last week's contest between host America de Cali and Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro had to be interrupted several times. Stun grenades exploded in nearby streets, police sirens wailed, and demonstrators shouted out their frustration. The players were forced to retreat to their dressing rooms until the tear gas cleared.
"Social disparity is particularly great in Colombia. Education, medicine, the tax system: people with low incomes are disadvantaged everywhere," said Colombian soccer player and activist Juliana Lozana. "People want a life of dignity, but they are brutally put down by the police. Nobody is thinking about football right now, because there are simply more important things."
Argentina to host Copa America
Four matches in, the continental competitions have been moved from Colombia to Paraguay and Ecuador in recent days. The union of Colombian footballers, Acolfutpro, has appealed to FIFA to step in.
"Until the public order situation, which affects the whole country and threatens our well-being, is resolved, we ask you not to schedule any more domestic games," it said in a statement.
It is entirely possible that the Colombian league will not have managed to crown a champion by early June. But the bigger task that Colombian football had been set to face is no more, after the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) announced on Thursday that it had withdrawn the country's right to cohost the Copa America with Argentina. Now the tournament, which kicks off on June 13, is to be held entirely in Argentina, something that will have come as a major disappointment for the government in Bogota.
"Football is a source of national pride in Colombia," explained British Latin America scholar Peter Watson. "The national team jersey is one of the few symbols that can overcome social divisions, at least temporarily."
Time and again, Colombians have rallied behind their national team, seeking a sense of community and looking to distance themselves from criminals, drug cartels or the leftist FARC movement. Like other heads of other government before him, current President Ivan Duque is looking to make a tournament like the Copa América part of the national narrative. But at the moment, football could actually deepen political divides.
Drug cartels and the big clubs
To understand what this could lead to you only need to look to the past. Colombian media have recently been publishing storied about Colombia's previous efforts to host major tournaments that became symbolic for national crises. Colombia was originally selected to host the 1986 World Cup, but in 1982 financial problems led the government to back out – and Mexico stepped in.
In 2001, Colombia attempted to put this trauma behind it by hosting the Copa America for the first time. At the time, Colombia was a football force to be reckoned with, having qualified for the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups. Major domestic clubs, however, had been infiltrated by drug cartels. After his own goal in the 1994 World Cup against the United States, Colombian player Andres Escobar was shot dead. Four years later, international Antony de Avila dedicated a goal to two imprisoned drug lords who had financed his club, America de Cali.
"The cartels wanted to have a say in who the national team coach picked in his squad," said Jürgen Griesbeck, CEO and founder of streetfootballworld, a non-governmental organization that aims to use football to help affect social change. "Death threats and violence were part of everyday life," added Griesbeck, who worked on several football projects in Colombia in the 1990s.
'Cup of peace'
FARC also threatened Colombia's plans to host the Copa America in 2001. At that time, the self-proclaimed "Revolutionary Armed Forces" had been fighting against the Colombian state for almost 40 years. They carried out attacks and assassinations that left tens of thousands dead and turned hundreds of thousands of people into refugees.
Shortly before the 2001 tournament, FARC set off bombs and kidnapped Hernan Mejia, vice president of the Colombian FA. The South American football federation CONMEBOL wanted to cancel the tournament as a result, but the Colombian government and the tournament's sponsors insisted that it be held as planned. Due to threatened acts of terrorism, the Argentine and Canadian national teams withdrew, but the Copa America went ahead as planned and Colombia won the title.
The president of the country at the time, Andres Pastrana, spoke of it as a "cup of peace." It was the basis for a narrative that the government under Juan Manuel Santos, in particular, looked to continue writing from 2010 onward. "Santos footballized the political debate," Latin America scholar Peter Watson said. "In many speeches and tweets, he described the national players as ambassadors for unity, discipline and effort."
Friendlies between former enemies
In peace negotiations between the government and FARC, which began in 2012, Santos used football to promote meetings and reconciliation. The Colombian national team qualified for the 2014 World Cup, and the defense ministry showed short films of signed footballs being dropped over FARC-controlled areas of the jungle, along with the message: "Guerrillas, don't miss the World Cup, demobilize, I'll save a place for you."
The FARC negotiators also wore the national team's jersey during peace talks. Friendly matches between longtime enemies have taken place since the 2016 cease-fire. NGOs use football as a way to help mediate conflicts.
But the peace remains fragile. Time and again, longtime FARC members criticize the Colombian government and call for the rebels to rearm. The current protests against social inequality could further destabilize the situation.
"Politicians can use football to invoke national unity," said Colombian activist Juliana Lozana. "But they can also use it to manipulate the population."
Many Colombians are still suffering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; more than 82,000 people have died from or with the virus, and just 9% of the population of more than 50 million have had their first jab.
So prior to Thurday's decision to take the Copa America away from Colombia, many of the country's average citizens probably couldn't have cared less about hosting the tournament. But still, they'll continue to wear the yellow national jersey — at least during the protests in the streets.