Colombias Farc guerillas turn to football as route back into society

Now the guns are finally silenced after 53 years of conflict in Colombia, the Marxist Farc, formerly one of the most powerful and feared groups in the world, want to have a professional team

A six-hour drive south of the Colombian capital, Bogot, across scorched plains and through twisting passes stretched along high Andean peaks, a dozen men kick a battered football across a strip of land clogged with mud and stones.

On the sidelines a man slumped in a wheelchair clatters his prosthetic leg against the frame. A woman standing beside him howls at the referee. She is clutching a rabbit. A rifle peeps from the bundle of white fur.

As the rain begins to lash down, the mad kick-and-rush played at breakneck speed continues unabated. Its an ugly spectacle and yet, for the 200-strong crowd in this war-weary corner of Colombia, the aesthetics are not a primary concern. Most are here to witness the first stuttering steps in a remarkable and historic transformation: that of the worlds first professional football team made up of former guerrilla fighters.

A year ago everybody was still at war but last November a peace deal was signed with the government and the western hemispheres longest-running conflict was brought to an end. For the left-wing Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia guerrilla group, or Farc, the Marxist struggle has since taken a new direction and football is playing a leading role.

Football has always been very popular within the Farc and so we decided to start our own professional team, Jeison Yepes says. Everybodys excited, were all talking about it.

Yepes is the president of the Farcs sports committee at the Mesetas camp, one of 26 temporary installations set up under the watch of the United Nations to facilitate the reintegration back into civilian life of more than 7,000 Farc members.

Play continues as a tropical storm batters down at the Mesetas camp. Photograph: Carl Worswick

Weekend tournaments hosted throughout Colombia at different Farc camps have helped get former guerrilla fighters involved in sport and tap into a burning enthusiasm for football. These events are also serving to identify potential players.

There are 16 teams playing in this tournament and so the idea is to start looking at talented players with a view to selecting one or two for regional trials, Yepes says. The very best from every region will go on to form the team.

Hundreds of miles south-west in the war-plagued Cauca region, its a similar story. Every weekend over the last several months, male, female and kids teams have been competing in Farc-organised tournaments. Perhaps most importantly after five decades of war these sporting events are also helping to heal wounds and bring communities together.

The Farc have several teams competing here at La Elvira but we also have sides from local Afro-Colombian communities, indigenous teams and mixed sides made up of the Farc and civilians, says a former combatant Julian Caballero, who was once on the books of the top-flight Colombian team Deportivo Cali. Some of the players on my team travel eight hours every weekend to be here.

As part of the governments commitment to helping the reintegration process, representatives from Colombias sports body, Coldeportes, are running sports and physical education programmes in the camps. We have 61 people working across the whole country, says the project coordinator, Gisela Gmez. Our objective is to get people involved in as many types of recreation as possible, but clearly its football they love the most.

Tucked in wild countryside deep in former Farc territory, La Elvira camp in Cauca has become the focal point in efforts to get a Farc team off the ground.

The camps commander, who uses the alias Walter Mendoza, is a wizened fighter with 37 years service in the Farc. He was once a prized target for the government but this year he was named the Farcs head of sport. He immediately put football at the top of his list of priorities.

Believe me, there is a lot of talent in the Farc, not just for football but also in the arts, volleyball, other sports, music and culture, he says. Clearly, though, football is what gets everyone excited and so thats why we are exploring the idea of putting together a professional team to compete in the second division.

Like many Farc members, Mendoza supports Atltico Nacional, the Copa Libertadores champions and arguably Colombias most popular team. He lists the former Nacional striker Faustino Asprilla as a long-time personal friend and claims Tino, alongside other former Colombian stars, is helping collaborate with the project.

Furthermore, Walter reveals a youth coach who spent more than 10 years working at a leading Colombian side in the morning and as an undercover Farc militia member in his spare time, has been a key contact in knocking on doors and building allies.

Farc have put football at the top of the list of their sporting priorities Photograph: Carl Worswick

But neither can claim to be the brainchild behind the idea. That credit falls to Felix Mora. Smartly dressed and with the learned mannerisms of a man well versed in politics, Mora knows how to get things done. A human rights lawyer and avid fan of Bogots biggest football team, Millonarios, five years ago he began exploring a way of bridging both passions.

Let me be clear, this is not a Farc team, Mora says, his finger flicking the side of his pint glass. This team, La Paz FC, will include ex-Farc fighters and anyone considered a victim of the conflict. They will be on the same team fighting for a common goal.

La Paz Ftbol Club began as an idea that brewed and gestated for several years. Mora made calls and scribbled letters but rarely did he receive an answer.

That was until the doors of peace swung open last year. Following a plebiscite on the peace deal in October that was narrowly rejected by the Colombian people, the Nobel peace prize winner Juan Manuel Santos and the Farc chief, alias Timochenko, submitted a revised deal that was approved by congress a month later. The guns fell silent after 53 years. Suddenly people became interested in Moras initiative.

Colombians are mad about football; its an important motor to unite people, he says. Thats the beautiful thing about it and we believe it can be an important tool in Colombias reconciliation.

In April, Mora travelled to La Elvira to meet Mendoza and thrash out a deal. That was tough, having to go out there into the sticks and be forthright with a top Farc commander that this had to be a joint project involving anyone who has been touched by this war, as a way of uniting Colombians.

Mora slept on the Farc camps library floor under a painting of Che Guevara and the guerrilla groups founder, Manuel Marulanda. Tempers flared and debate continued deep into the night but a loose outline was drawn up to form three teams: a mens XI for the Colombian second division, a womens team for the fledgling Colombian womens league and an under-20s side. The aim, initially at least, was to have all three teams competing by 2018.

Moras project quickly ran into trouble. Besides the logistical nightmare of selecting a team from the best players from the Farc and more than 8,000,000 registered war victims located in some of the most inhospitable corners of Colombia, resistance from powerful sectors of society began to derail ambitions; most strikingly from the countrys main football body, the Divisin Mayor del Ftbol Profesional Colombiano.

Farc members shuffle for cover from a storm that beats down during a semi-final held at the Mesetas camp. Photograph: Carl Worswick

Colombia has 36 professional teams split into two divisions, with each club affiliated to Dimayor. In order to enter the Colombian league, La Paz FC have two options: to buy out one of the existing teams or to persuade Dimayor to expand the league by modifying its statutes.

If the first option is problematic because of the huge sums of money needed to obtain a teams licence (estimated to be at least 5m), not to mention finding a club interested in selling, the second idea is even more riddled with knots.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s Colombian football was ruled by drug barons such as Pablo Escobar, who saw clubs as a fertile vehicle to pamper egos and wash dirty money. Referees were murdered, titles were bought and players lived in fear.

Undoubtedly, the modern Colombian game bears little resemblance to the dark days of narco football. Under heavy pressure from the government, much has changed and football has cleaned up its act. These days, most clubs are registered as plcs with shareholders subject to stringent background checks, making the game much more transparent.

Dimayor remains polluted with autocratic club presidents who, like certain sectors of wider society, remain deeply hostile to the Farc. In order to change Dimayor rules and allow extra teams, this tightly knit old boys club will need to take a majority vote and the chances of 19 or more presidents voting in favour look slim.

I completely reject the idea, says the former player and ultra right-wing Boyac Chic FC owner, Eduardo Pimentel. Colombian football should not be getting down on its knees in front of the Farc.

Dimayor has officially taken a more conciliatory stance, arguing discussion must first open with the government in order to analyse the scope of the post-conflict agenda in helping incorporate guerrillas back into civilian life. Privately, though, the controversial proposal has failed to win support.

This is something that has never happened before, said a former Dimayor representative. Honestly, I think it would be very difficult.

Over the past few weeks Mora has busily sought to engage the press and spark debate about the project. Giving interviews to Colombias main newspapers and appearing on radio, Mora has ensured La Paz FC is very much in the public eye.

So much so that even the former Colombian president lvaro Uribe stormed into the debate with a typically heated response. It would be an embarrassment, the hard-right politician said. After all Colombias efforts to rid drug trafficking from football, the Farc are now going to have their own team. Its nonsense.

A kids team warms up ahead of their game in the group stage of a Farc-organised tournament held in La Elvira. Photograph: Carl Worswick

Uribes comment that La Paz FC are a uniquely Farc team has become a common theme. While undermining Moras attempts to build a team including all actors of the conflict, this focus has also antagonised the Farc, who feel Mora is speaking on their behalf without authorisation. A rupture was imminent.

Following weeks of silence, just a few days ago the Farc appointed Edgar Cortes, a former director at the nine-times Colombian champions Santa Fe, as the groups spokesperson for sport. He wasted no time in dissolving what had always been a fizzling partnership.

We have decided to rule out the possibility of working with this team La Paz FC. Its a project that didnt take into account what we wanted, Cortes says. We will instead be focusing on developing our own football project.

Provisionally labelled Ftbol Paz Farc, the former guerrilla organisations new plan is to set up coaching schools in rural areas long abandoned by the state. While the goal of competing professionally in the Colombian league remains, Cortes argues the Farc must first show they can perform at regional level.

Our main priority is to work with the most vulnerable people in Colombia in zones that were heavily affected by the conflict. The Farc will be the axis of this project but it will be a pluralistic initiative open to everyone in the country.

Cortes, a burly figure with snow-white hair, has tapped into his contacts and secured precious support from football authorities. During a recent meeting held with Dimayors president, Jorge Perdomo, the football body agreed to help the Farc in areas of coaching and logistics.

Our focus will now be on developing young players and the under-20s, Mendoza says. But this support also gives us a real chance of one day having a professional team.

Having adopted a more sensible time frame, Cortess strategy will be to focus on the Farcs traditional strongholds in the countryside, while hoping for a gradual softening of attitudes to the former-state enemy within footballs hierarchy.

For Mora and La Paz FC, he maintains that the door remains open to the Farc but admits their withdrawal has been a blow. Nevertheless, he will press ahead.

This is a long and complicated process, he says. But our idea is supported by the government and this is recognised in the countrys peace agreement. Thats important.

Whether two post-conflict teams can survive and be welcomed in a still deeply polarised country remains to be seen. But with another fledgling idea also registered with Dimayor aimed at bringing professional football to Tumaco, one of the worst-hit areas of the country during the conflict, there is clearly an appetite to use football to unite battle-scarred communities.

Football alone will not provide all the answers to building a brighter Colombia but in setting an example of how former enemies may put their differences aside and move on with their lives, it could help reconciliation.

Not so long ago the Farc were one of the most powerful and feared rebel groups in the world. Now, former fighters like to muse that the only shots fired in the future will be the ones on goal.

Farc members play football at the camp in Llanos del Yari. Photograph: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images

Read more: