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SPORT-COLOMBIA: Football for a Sense of Belonging

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Jul 3 2006 (IPS) - They have won three amateur football championships in the Colombian capital, came second in another, and are so far undefeated in a tournament now being played. But the Afro-Colombians of Los Corintios football club have never been included in the Soacha municipal championship.

“They just ignore us,” Ramón Mosquera, co-founder of the club with his brother Roberto Camacho, told IPS. The team belongs to La Isla district in Altos de Cazucá (Cazucá Heights), an informal settlement that is home mostly to people displaced by Colombia’s decades-old civil war, in the hills south of Bogotá – located in the Soacha municipality.

Mosquera is convinced that in football, in applying for university entrance and other facets of everyday life, they suffer discrimination because they are people who have been “displaced” from their homes in the rural areas of the country.

In the context of this struggle for social inclusion, the Colombian office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had a hand in organising a match between Los Corintios and the Estrellas Football Club last weekend in the main Soacha stadium. The pitch is fully illuminated because professional league matches are played there, and it was one of the venues for the National Games in 2004.

The Estrellas (Stars) team, as it name indicates, has television actors for players, including Lucas Jaramillo, a former professional football player, who after participating in a reality show took up a career in television. Their coach is well-known singer and actor Marcelo Cezán.

For this match, Jaramillo chose to play mid-field for Los Corintios for the first half of the match, and Los Corintios were winning by three goals to two at halftime.

Camacho, 56, and Mosquera, 44, had to flee from Tadó, a town of 20,000 people in the tropical rainforest department of Chocó, in the Colombian northwest, in 1996. They started the football club four years ago, when Altos de Cazucá was still a battleground between urban leftist guerrillas and ultra-right paramilitary groups.

At that time, “things were very difficult. Young people took drugs, joined gangs, and worse,” Camacho, now vice president of the Community Action Council of La Isla, told IPS.

“We have a group of 120 youngsters, age eight and older, for male football alone. But we want to expand the club to include other disciplines,” said Mosquera, who had to resign from his job as a police inspector in Tadó “because of the violence.”

Some of the youngsters are in school, while some of the older ones are no longer studying and are unemployed.

The club operates on a shoestring budget. The brothers eke out their own family budgets in order to pay for transportation and team dues. Their bright white kit with red socks, which made their debut in the match against Estrellas, was donated by shopkeepers in Soacha.

Now the UN wants to help the club start a football training school. “The state hasn’t helped us at all,” said Mosquera.

Diakonie Emergency Aid, the humanitarian organisation of the German Protestant Church, persuaded UNHCR to set up a permanent office in Altos de Cazucá.

In September 2004, UNHCR opened its doors in La Isla: a two-storey house painted brilliant white, visible from all over the neighbourhood of houses springing up from the slopes of two dusty hills.

The following January, the rest of the UN agencies operating in Colombia followed UNHCR’s example, and soon after, the government made its first appearance in Cazucá, setting up a House of Rights.

After experiencing some difficulties attending people at their local office, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights finally decided that people would have to take their complaints to its office in the north of Bogotá.

In La Isla district, “things have changed since the UNHCR came here. Just as well, because life was absolutely impossible before that,” Camacho told IPS. His brother says Camacho “dedicates his whole life to the community.”

There were few people in the stands on the day of the match between Los Corintios and Estrellas Football Club, because it was the day the national government had called on displaced people living in Soacha to register in order to receive a 460-dollar aid stipend.

“How could people come, when this was a one-time-only offer of assistance for setting up some small business?” said Rosa Zambrano, a displaced person from the department of Caquetá, in the south of the country.

Zambrano coordinates the Foundation for the Redemption of Life, an association of 98 displaced families whose main aim is to return to the lands they left behind, and which helped UNHCR in organising the football match.

In any case, although the mayor’s office and several local businesses, including the eye-catching Palace of Panties, supported the game, other Soacha residents stayed home. Their excuse? That same morning Ecuador’s national team was playing England for survival in the FIFA World Cup in Germany.

“We all play for the same team,” says the slogan coined by UNHCR in Colombia, printed on T-shirts that Roberto Meier, the Argentine director of the office, had for sale at 3.85 dollars apiece.

“It means that we are all on the side of whoever is in need,” said former singer Daniel Abadía, the manager of Artistas Football Club, about the UNHCR motto.

“There’s a part of Colombian society that doesn’t know what’s going on, but there’s another part that does. Artistas FC helped Los Corintios with their uniforms and footballs, and that’s very important,” the UNHCR Colombia director said.

“And may the best team win, just like yesterday!” Meier exclaimed, as he performed the honorary kick-off. The previous day, Colombia’s national team had defeated Mexico by two goals to one, earning a place in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

All the fans at the Soacha stadium were unanimously Los Corintios supporters. When their team finally beat Estrellas 5-3, the elated crowd poured on to the pitch to ask the opposing players for autographs.

And after the game, Alonso Ospina, administrator at the Soacha Municipal Sports and Recreation Institute, announced that in future, the municipality would invite Los Corintios to participate in the Soacha neighbourhoods championship.

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