July 13, 2001

Soccer's More Than A Game This Month In Colombia

By Andres Tapia

It was the lead story on major U.S. Spanish-language stations. The Copa America — Latin America's top soccer tournament — was to be held in Colombia after all.

Officials at first postponed the tournament until next year when a high-level Colombian soccer official, responsible for planning the tournament, was kidnapped by members of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Colombians were devastated by the news. They had been working steadily for yours to gain the privilege of hosting the tournament — in part to prove to the world that there is more to their country than murder, drug smuggling and extremism.

FARC's kidnapping action confirmed the worst stereotypes of life in Colombia.

The Colombian government staged a full court press. It lobbied the South American Confederation of Soccer to reconsider at an emergency meeting, Andres Pastrana, Colombia's president, went on national TV to plead for the tournament. A heavyweight entourage was dispatched to Santiago — including the kidnapped soccer official, released by a chagrined FARC which apparently learned it's one thing to fight against injustice and quite another to mess around with people's passion for soccer.

The lobbying paid off. The confederation reversed its decision and thousands of joyous soccer fans poured out to the streets of Bogota, Medellin, and other Colombian cities that are to host the tournament.

There will still be tensions. Champion and favorite Argentina has decided not to field a team and several European clubs that own the rights to key Latin American players have refused to let them participate in the tournament for fear of violence.

Stakes are high for Colombia to pull off a clean, peaceful tournament. All the excitement takes me back to other soccer tournaments when the game had significance far beyond the score.

In 1969, Peru qualified to go to the World Cup finals in Mexico by tying a game with Argentina in Buenos Aires. My sisters and I were at the circus, watching death-defying acts, but we were aware of the soccer score thanks to regular updates by the master of ceremonies.

When the show was over, we ran out into the streets to join millions of revelers in a city-wide party. The cacophony of thousands of car horns filled the air with the rhythm of the Peruvian team's cheer. My mom came to pick us up with a big vat of pisco sours which she served to all comers from the open back door of our yellow Opel station wagon.

We were in the second year of a military dictatorship that had family and friends scared But on that night, we forgot about disappearances, torture, the state of emergency, the dark future being created by shadowy military men who had stolen our democratic life.

Fast forward to 1978. Once again we had fielded a strong team. The decade-old, leftist military revolution had left us with a shriveled-up GNP.

Protests against the government by students and unions were getting bolder. In an attempt to distract the nation, the government decided to invest millions of scarce dollars so its TV stations could carry color transmissions for the first time.

We could see the Peruvian team's classic, diagonal red stripe emblazoned proudly across the players' white uniforms and cheered as our heroes played strongly against powerhouses Scotland and Holland. We couldn't believe how green the fields could actually tell whether a player got a yellow or red card.

Suddenly, our team's soccer exploits made us feel ours was a great country. We could do anything — the European powers couldn't hold us down. Our government's excesses and failures paled in comparison with our new-found identity.

Then came the debacle. In order to advance to the next round, Argentina had to defeat Peru by six goals, a lopsided score in international soccer. Rumors flew that Argentina was offering Peruvian players big money to throw the game. We were convinced that our government, after its multi-million dollar color TV expenditure, would outbid any Argentinean attempt to buy our players.

No one knows what truly happened. Peru lost 6-0 against Argentina, preventing England from advancing and paving the way for Argentina — the host country — to win the title.

No one can prove the connection between that devastating loss and what happened next. What we know is that protests against the Peruvian government got even bolder and a year later, the military dictatorship announced it would peacefully transfer power back to the civilians in the coming year.

Today, Colombia gets its wish. When it comes to soccer and politics in Latin America, be careful what you wish for.

Andres Tapia, who grew up in Lima, Peru, writes on Latin American politics and culture.

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