Sunday, April 3, 2011

Soccer fever: what's violence got to do with it?

The stereotype of Latin Americans as soccer fanatics is, in my experience, pretty spot on, and members of the Peace Community are no exception. The men, and some of the women, religiously watch national league games, as well as, of course, games in which the national team plays. Many afternoons, kids and some of the younger men gather for pickup games, and periodically a tournament gets organized between teams of the different neighboring villages.

But, claims Raúl (name changed), a community member and avid soccer player and watcher, the soccer fever of today is nothing like in the 1980s.

I am sitting with Raúl, a visitor from a neighboring village named Daniel, and my teammate Jon under the tin roof of our neighbor’s house. It rained all night and is still raining, so most folks haven’t gone to work in the fields and are hanging out under a few porch roofs, passing the time telling stories and jokes until the rain lets up and they can go chop weeds in their cacao orchards or finish up the thatch roof on a new community building.

“In the 1980s,” he says, “La Union had an excellent team, fully loaded with great players from goal keeper to forward. That’s because everyone was very disciplined,” Raúl says Every afternoon, even after working a full day in the fields, guys would meet at the soccer field on the outskirts of the village to practice, rain or shine. And training would start very young so that by the time they were teenagers, boys would be good enough to play on the men’s team.

Tournaments were regularly organized not just among the neighboring villages, but with towns and villages in the entire region. The tournaments were spaces for friends and family living far away to gather and share in the festivities.

Raúl tells of one, in 1980, hosted here in La Union that lasted an entire week. “Players and fans from other villages slung up hammocks in the schoolhouse,” he remembers, “and everyday a pig or a cow was slaughtered for the day’s meals. By the championship game, the middle of the field had become so muddy that the players had to play from the sides if they wanted to get the ball off the ground.”

La Union, of course, won the tournament (though, if we’re being honest, on a penalty kick). In fact, in those years La Union won most tournaments, and somewhere there is a mountain of trophies to prove it. La Unión had fans all over the region, including those who made a good bit of money betting on its success. But those who won bets would always buy sodas or beers for the winning team.

In 1989, various banana exporting companies organized a region-wide tournament. Raúl tells that in the first round, teams in the various sub-regions faced off. La Union had two teams – one of the tried and true players and another of the younger guys – and both made it to the semi-finals. Though the younger guys lost in that round, the principal team made it to the finals, played in the big stadium in the “big city” of Apartado. It had rained hard that morning, and La Union barely made it down the slippery mountain in time to play in the final. They dressed quickly, a bit nervous about having to face off against the big, burly guys of the opposing team. “It was an intense game,” Raúl remembers, “and the opposing team had us running all over the field.”

The opposing team made the first goal, but La Union managed to answer before the end of the first period. At the start of the second half the opposing team scored again, but within a few minutes La Union tied it up once again. The game seemed destined to end with a tie, but in the last two minutes one of the La Union players intercepted a long kick by the opposing team, carried it down the field, and scored the winning goal. The opposing team could barely believe that a bunch of small guys from the countryside had beaten them.

“But things have changed since then,” Raúl laments. In those days, teams from all over would regularly visit each others’ villages for games. “Back then,” says Raúl, “one wasn’t afraid to walk the four or five hours to another village for a game. Now, though, people are afraid to go to another village.”

That’s because, he explains, in the 1980s there weren’t guerrillas or paramilitaries around who might threaten or attack you on your way to a soccer tournament. “Well,” he corrects himself, “there were guerrillas, but they kept hidden and didn’t bother us.” Peasants could travel around the area as they pleased, whether to play in a soccer tournament or visit family in another village.

In the 1990s, however, paramilitaries arrived and began to confront the guerrillas. Peasants soon became chess pieces—or presumed chess pieces—for one side or the other. It no longer became safe to travel freely because one side or the other might accuse you of collaborating with the other, or you might get caught in a firefight. The paramilitaries’ violence resulted in massive displacement, and while some peasants stayed in local towns and cities to wait out the violence, others—including some of the best soccer players—fled to big cities like Medellín and never returned.

Those who remained in the area, and later began returning to their lands from the small towns and cities in the region to which they displaced, haven’t feel all that safe or motivated to restart the soccer tournaments. A few of the closer villages still play games once in a while, but nothing like what Raúl describes in the 1980. Nonetheless, Raúl says that he’d like to have the Community put some effort into restarting some tournaments and reenergizing the soccer—and community—spirit. He tells us of plans to organize a soccer tournament during Holy Week, and how hopefully that can be the first of many.

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