Colombia: Learning To Love Soccer Again


Today, Colombians have much to celebrate. As President Juan Manuel Santos signs a cease-fire with its oldest guerrilla group, the country is overrun by soccer fever. Our national team lost recently in the semifinals of the Copa America. It was a solid performance nonetheless, and there is widespread respect in the country for how far the team advanced.

This moment is a far cry from twenty-two years ago when we stopped loving soccer: even as young boys, something felt very wrong when a player from our National Team was murdered for scoring an own goal for the United States.

Twenty-two years ago yesterday, we were children -- we were eight and ten -- cheering for our sports idols. We loved soccer more than anything in the world. But on June 22, 1994, at the Rose Bowl, Andrés Escobar made a mistake. Ten days later, he was murdered in Colombia.

There are very few things worth dying for, and a soccer mistake is not one of them. Even though fanaticism and nationalism, as primary tribal instincts, will remain in the hearts of humans forever, we have come a long way from watching lions maul people to "dying for" our soccer team. We as humans have changed the narrative.

In Colombia, however, the narrative of violence runs deep. Colombia has been dying for more than just soccer. Since its birth, the country has been marked by death in struggles for gold, for rubber, for land, for communism, for capitalism. These narratives of violence have permeated the world beyond Colombia's borders through television shows like Narcos, the war on drugs, and fear of kidnappings. To a degree, this reputation is fitting: Colombia has died and it continues dying.

But as of June 23rd, 2016 -- the conversation has changed. Today, the government and the longest-standing guerrilla force sign an accord that ends five decades of fighting. This one event represents a much broader project. Over the last few years, the Colombian government and civil society actors have worked hard to change societal narratives. They have attempted to change a dominant idea of the country and its citizens as marked by violence, to one where we are marked by a "culture of peace." The growing discourse and promotion of peace as a way of life takes shapes in the schools (through mandated peace curriculum), in the police and armed forces (who are being trained with peace education), and in businesses that are being pushed to think of development as promoting stability and the basic conditions to prevent violence.

Colombia will be in the news today because of peace. With the presence of United Nations' Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and five heads of state, the world is paying attention. Optimism abounds.

Nevertheless, Colombia is a good example of how changing such deeply rooted historical narratives can be complicated and mired with pitfalls. "Peace" permeates government rhetoric, social media networks, and everyday conversations across the country, but a more permanent change is still in the balance. Prominent political forces seek to prevent the peace accords, in many communities the end of warfare will do little to combat the inequality and lack of basic necessities that feed the current conflict, and there is significant disillusionment with the length and complexity of progress.

A culture of peace is far from inevitable. Delineating victims, perpetrators, assigning blame, recognizing those who have suffered, and reconciliation will take years and possibly remain forever contested. As lessons from countries as diverse as Northern Ireland to Peru to Rwanda demonstrate, new post-conflict narratives of peace and unity may hide deep scars.

How then can peace, human rights, and a more just and equal future be promoted in Colombia? Will the attempt to change the narrative change the lived reality and situation on the ground?

We need to collectively construct a peace narrative not only of the future, but that recognizes the past and the present. We must promote Colombia's future with a culture of peace, but we cannot ignore the collective construction of the troubling and violent past. We cannot deny the human, social, and economic cost of our conflict: over 200,000 dead, almost 6 million displaced, a GDP estimated to be half of what it could have been. We need to acknowledge all of this and bring together the multiplicity of actors who have been affected to weave together the past, present, and future so we can make the narrative cohesive.

For Colombia, this challenge looms large because a true sense of the country and its citizens as a "collective" working together contrasts with the long and deeply segregated nature of its society. Building a new narrative means acknowledging the inequality and oppression of the past, the unequal effect of the conflict, the absences and failings of the state, and the ways that inequality is institutionalized. It means bringing together the displaced with the owners of multinational companies, the police with the campesinos, the children of the elite with those of the street vendors.

Like twenty-two years ago, today's events once again bring together soccer and conflict. This time, however, shows how far the country has come and how much the narratives have changed.

Twenty-two years after that fateful day in the 1994 World Cup, Colombia played the U.S.A. again. Escobar's family was present at Levi's Stadium when, before the first game, Copa America was dedicated to Andrés Escobar. His family said that it helped them heal.

And just a few days later, Frank Fabra scored an own goal against Costa Rica in a game Colombia lost 3-2. But by the next time Colombia took the pitch, his mistake was easily forgiven and the fans salsa-ed and screamed for joy as their team continued to advance.

Through pain, mindfulness and understanding, the narrative is changing. We can hope and be a bit more confident that no one will be killed because of yesterday's game. We can believe that peace will finally be here.

We can start loving soccer again. #HazelFútbolYNolaGuerra

*Peter Pizano is a Colombian-born JD/LLM student at Northwestern Law, pursuing a joint-degree in International Human Rights Law. He is currently interning in Manhattan. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

*Gabriel Velez is pursuing a Ph.D. in Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. He is currently working at Fundación Ideas por la Paz in Bogotá, Colombia.