Colombia Comes out of Its Shell

Globalization has benefited its economy and its soccer, but at what cost?

Omar Torres / AFP / Getty Images
Omar Torres / AFP / Getty Images

Of all the nations represented at both the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 1994 World Cup in the United States, Colombia has changed the most dramatically. Twenty years ago, the world reacted with shock if not surprise when defender Andrés Escobar was murdered in Medellín by a drug gang’s henchman after scoring an own goal. Today, by contrast, Colombian players can take the field full of confidence and free of fear, just like the nation they represent. But the road from then to now was far from smooth.

When Colombia’s team was eliminated from the World Cup in the United States in 1994, soccer was a rare respite from the pressing social and economic needs of a nation at war with drug trafficking, terrorism, and the runaway inflation that came with waves of illicit cash. At the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s, only soccer could bring smiles to faces covered with tears and open eyes more accustomed to shutting out the horrors occurring all around; during that period, a goal shout was one of the only sounds that could silence the blast from a bomb.

Colombia’s national team thus sustained, albeit precariously, a society that had few other reasons to rejoice. Its triumphs were small in the context of the global game but immense for a society with so many unmet physical and emotional needs. The effort and performance of that generation confirmed the sport’s identity in Colombia: a desire to release the happiness and creativity bottled up inside every Colombian.

Things finally began to change as Colombia implemented new laws derived from its new constitution of 1991. The restructuring of government offices and spending policies, as well as reform of the financial sector, began to alter both the perception and the reality of the economy. The process took several years, while Colombia’s soccer idols, born of mud and poverty, saw their best years come and go, only a few having been signed by European teams where — with few exceptions — they struggled to succeed.

Traditionally, the Colombian economy had been known internationally for exports of crops like bananas, tobacco, and flowers — cocaine came later — as well as the quality of its coffee. Juan Valdez, the fictional coffee farmer, and his donkey competed with the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar to be the global symbol of a country with an oft-misspelled name. Yet it was the internal market that provided the impulse as the country prepared for a sudden opening to the rest of the world.

Colombia’s opening would benefit its soccer players as well, especially as it coincided with changes abroad. Starting in 1995, European soccer authorities loosened their rules on contracting foreign players, and the Bosman verdict gave players a greater voice in deciding where they would work and for how much. Carlos Valderrama’s afro, Faustino Asprilla’s long strides, Adolfo "The Train" Valencia’s dancing moves, and the scorpion kick goalkeeping of René Higuita soon became iconic thanks to their feats on the field. Transfers in global soccer tripled between 1995 and 2011, and by the end of that period 3 percent of them involved Colombian players — the same as for Uruguayans, always a hot commodity.

In the meantime, Colombia cleansed itself to a great degree of the influence of drug traffickers and consolidated its outward-facing stance through free trade agreements, membership in regional economic groups, and participation in continent-wide dialogues on economic and social policy. (Even so, the biggest component of "Plan Colombia" was still fundamentally military, and its burden on the public policies would not end anytime soon.)

In soccer, Colombia finally started to come out of its shell as well. The youth teams in the national setup began to bring a touch of excitement to international tournaments, though without winning anything to speak of, thanks to coaches like Reinaldo Rueda and Eduardo Lara. A rhythmic touch along with greater speed and a mentality based in the same impulse driving the entire country forward marked the evolution of the country’s soccer style as well as of the team itself.

But it would take time. The senior team resisted changes, though far from the glamor days of the 1990s and despite its failures to qualify for the World Cup. Its biggest triumph, the Copa America of 2001, occurred at home and without the presence of Argentina, which declined to participate because of alleged security problems. And attendance at league matches was also falling, thanks not only to the exodus of the country’s best players but also to the arrival of satellite broadcasts from more prestigious competitions. In 1993 the average attendance was greater than 12,000; by 2012, according to the league government body, that figure had fallen by almost half.

Indeed, most of the success obtained in the globalized era of Colombian soccer has come abroad. The national team now boasts top scorers in Germany and Portugal, as well as many more stars from Europe’s foremost leagues. And that’s without counting Radamel Falcao García, whose value was entering the stratospheric Cristiano Ronaldo range when he moved from Atlético de Madrid to Monaco last year; only the ligaments in his knee kept him from joining the squad. Of the 23 players who did make it to Brazil, only three (including two substitute goalkeepers) played domestically.

Globalization has had its ups and downs for Colombia, to be sure. Critics point to some industries where exports have replaced sales in the domestic market and others where local businesses have been devastated by laws that give foreign investors an edge over domestic producers. Soccer has been no different. Success abroad has come with tradeoffs at home. The question is whether the national team, like a multinational company repatriating its earnings, can finally bring some of its glory back to Colombia.

(Translated by Daniel Altman)

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