ColombiaIt is late Friday night and Pedro Contreras is sitting in his car shuffling through the radio stations. Nearby, the door of a local shop swings open and out walks Pedro’s son, David. He is wearing the red home shirt of Santa Fe.

As he begins making his way towards the car, seven fans from rival club Millonarios spring from the shadows and block the 19-year-old’s path.

Insults are traded, a scuffle breaks out and Pedro jumps from his car. It is dark and the eyes of the 66-year-old aren’t what they used to be. He doesn’t see the flash of steel whipped from the coat pocket of one of the Millonarios fans, and he is too slow to stop the knife’s descent into his chest.

Twenty minutes later, the retired army sergeant is pronounced dead. He didn’t even make it to hospital.

“I was attacked because I was wearing a red shirt,” son David later mourned. “And now my dad lies
in heaven.”

Within 72 hours, two more Colombian football fans who were wearing the wrong colour shirt at the wrong time and in the wrong place were murdered. Carlos Medellin, 20, and Carlos Rodriguez, 21, were both killed for being Atletico Nacional fans on the eve of their team’s clasico against Millonarios, the biggest rivalry in the league calendar.

The deaths sent Colombian football spinning into its worst crisis in years and left the whole country scrambling for answers.

Spectre of violence

The spectre of fan violence has haunted the Colombian game for years, but with 11 of the 32 football-related deaths recorded since 2007 having occurred during the last nine months, the problem is clearly getting worse.

Bogota’s city council was the first to respond. As owners of the city’s El Campin stadium – which is shared by Santa Fe and Millonarios – they called off Millonarios’ game against Nacional set for that evening in a move that drew widespread public support.

“We cannot celebrate goals while our children are being killed over the colour of a football shirt,” lamented Bogota council secretary Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo.

But the postponement of one game was never going to be enough and, over the next few hours, Colombian football found itself under heavy attack.

“No more football until the game can behave itself!” screamed one enraged Twitter user, while the country’s vice-president, Angelino Garzon, also used social media to point the finger at the murky relationship clubs enjoyed with the barras bravas.

The maelstrom of blame being thrown at football forced the organising body of the domestic league to call
a press conference and defend the sport’s name. But a statement from the organisation’s president, Ramon Jesurun, only served to wash the federation’s hands of any responsibility connected to violence plaguing football. His strategy also served to tap into the mass wave of social unrest currently gripping the nation.

For weeks, protests from teachers, farmers, health workers and students swept across most of the country. The discontent had left government approval ratings at a record low.

Jesurun argued that football was merely a vacuum into which this frustration and alienation was being channelled. He won support from Colombian Football Federation president Luis Bedoya, who urged the country to expose “the real reasons behind the violence”.

While Colombia’s football authorities rushed to defend each other, on the other side of the fence stood government security advisor Francisco Lloreda. Supported by his allies in the Conservative Party, he called for the national football championship to be axed.

Recent measures such as barring fans from away games and increased police numbers, had not worked.
More drastic action, he claimed, was now needed.

Jesurun hit back, describing Lloreda’s proposal as “absurd” and he won crucial backing from the country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, who ruled out the move.

Instead, the government announced a new monitoring system to be installed within all stadiums before the start of next season.

Spectators would simply swipe their national ID cards through machines at turnstiles and records would be kept of any acts of violence, including those of the barras.

Sensible measure

It sounded like a sensible measure and mayors across the country promised to throw their weight behind it – but it was soon revealed that the very same plan had been put into law in 2009 but had never been implemented.

Furthermore, what good would an ID card have served the three latest victims, who were all killed on a non-match day at least 1km away from any stadium?

Colombia has been left shocked and disturbed that yet again a football shirt had been used as an excuse to kill. But in a country that has been engulfed in a bloody 50-year civil war, with laws left unenforced and much-needed self-reflection lost in squabbles over proportioning blame, it would be asking for a miracle to expect Colombian football to find solutions any time soon.

By Carl Worswick