Football and power in Colombia: in bed since 1948

When thirty years ago Noemí Sanín – then Minister of Communications of Colombia – asked the directors of the main news media outlets in the country to stop their reports from the burning Palace of Justice and, instead, to broadcast a boring Millonarios-Unión Magdalena game, she was not being innovative. Football has been, throughout the country’s political history, an uncontested panic button for those in power.

We only have to remember the origin of the professionalization of Football in Colombia in 1948. A great deal of it was due to the necessity to give the people a civilized, weekly entertainment to ease the atmosphere that had been heating up since the murder of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán — and the resulting riots on April 9th of that year.

So what did the government do? It allowed team owners to use the state’s infrastructure, and sold them dollars at a preferential rate, so the professional tournament could begin by August. Months later, news arrived of the strike in Argentina, which opened the door to poach star players from that country’s teams. Thanks to the dollars given by the state, along with other resources, Di Stéfano, Pedernera, Rial, Pontoni and others arrived to Colombian football. Ours was an openly pirate league between 1949 and 1953, which meant, among other things, that clubs were created without enough assets to face lean periods.

Years later, in 1984 when the Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla was murdered by narcos, the Belisario Betancur government wanted to show its claws, so said it would take steps to eradicate the mafia influence in many areas, including sport. But they were only words that didn’t become facts. Especially in an era when, as we now know, drug cartels controlled directly or indirectly a good amount of the Colombian league teams.

Five years later, on Friday August 18th, 1989, presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán was murdered. The qualifiers for the 1990 World Cup in Italy were scheduled to start the following Sunday in Barranquilla. Francisco Maturana’s Colombia was to play Ecuador, and many thought that the game should be played as a balm to calm the pain of loosing the president. It was out of the question to mention the paradox that that National Team was made up of players that had reached a superlative level thanks to the investments from “controversial businessmen,” who were the same people that had fueled the death machine that caused the end of Galán.

It took the murder of a referee, Álvaro Ortega, in Medellín weeks later for the government to feel that they had enough, and the Colombian league of 1989 was cancelled. Criticisms poured in from everywhere. Maybe the fiercest one came from Francisco Maturana, who said in his biography, Hombre Pacho, that Football and politics were separate issues, and that the show had to go on. A plethora of good intentions followed, along with the announcement of requirements each team would have to meet to guarantee legality and transparency. But good intentions were just good intentions. Months later, the 1990 tournament began, and the same people were still doing the same things.

There were other milestones. The 2001 Copa América “of peace,” was used to resuscitate the agonizing peace talks with the Farc guerrilla in El Caguán. Up until ten days before its start it was uncertain if the tournament would take place. This was due to a series of terrorist attacks  happening around the country, in particular in Bogotá. Years later, Vice President Francisco Santos thought that there would be nothing like a World Cup to introduce Colombia as the Eden-like society we would become, thanks to President Álvaro Uribe’s seguridad democrática policies. And so the U-20 World Cup came to Colombia in 2011, a tournament for which the government invested 210,000 million pesos (equivalent then to 112 million dollars) to, mostly rebuild VIP areas in stadiums, including elevators that could lift the prominent bellies of FIFA  executives. All of this was done, let’s not forget, by order of Jack Warner, the former Concacaf head now in jail. And how could we forget that Angelino Garzón – the first Juan Manuel Santos Vice President – helped to secure a 50,000 million pesos loan (25 million dollars) in 2010 from the Financial Development Fund Findeter to save the Colombian league teams. Would he have done the same for pig farmers?

And between milestones, there were also those little details that guarantee strength in a relationship: invitations from the world of Football to the officers responsible for the surveillance and control of teams; presidents that welcomed teams under legal investigation into their offices; high-ranking officers that would intercede so that an extradition order doesn’t ruin their beloved toy; and honorable court justices that let slip legal suits that seek to protect fundamental rights, so they don’t lose on ticket sales, while they were  part of Dimayor – the Colombian football governing body.

It is a sick relationship, but very few, not even fans, want to be aware of it. Just like sausages, no one wants to know what are their team’s victories made of. Opinion leaders showcase high ethical standards in their usual platforms, but in the stadium they are much more flexible.

The biggest problem is that someone’s sons are the ones effected by this arrangement. They are footballers, in particular those of low or medium profiles, that when their rights are not respected, and they ask the state for assistance, they are met with the message that the corresponding officer is  on a trip to Barranquilla, invited by the Colombian Football Federation.

This article originally appeared in Spanish in FútbolRed and is translated here with permission.

Federico Arango

Opinion editor at El Tiempo newspaper.

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