I never knew a thumbs-up could mean so much. Usually, a thumbs-up is just a casual gesture between friends. But when the thumbs-up comes from a man with Kevlar vest and an M-16, it feels quite different.
Camino a la Copa
Camino a la Copa is a group taking a five-month journey from Steamboat Springs to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Read more columns here, and visit www.caminoalacopa.com for more information.
Colombia has been trapped in an endless cycle of violence for years, with the military fighting haplessly against revolutionary groups, drug cartels and gangs without end in sight.
This long-term instability allowed whole regions of the country to be controlled by non-government groups, which then could force the locals to grow coca and produce “pasta,” the raw cocaine paste that later could be refined into the drug so high in demand in the United States and Europe.
The cycles of violence have wreaked havoc on youths of Colombia. As families fled the dangerous rural areas, they sought refuge in disorganized suburbs around major cities. These slums often lack basic services like reliable water or sewer. They certainly lack good schools, after-school or summer programs or sports organizations.
But Colombians love soccer. They live it and breathe it. Gearing up for the World Cup, everyone is collecting playing cards of the players on all the national teams, which they will paste into albums.
On street corners, grown men are calling out players’ names and trading cards with the intensity of NYSE brokers. When we attended a friend’s birthday party, the birthday girl sat forgotten against the wall while her family members pulled stacks of stickers out of their wallets and fervently traded doubles.
“Who has a Cristiano Ronaldo? Who has a Clint Dempsey?”
Because of this passion, it makes sense that it would take soccer to rebuild this broken society.
In Medellin, a city Pablo Escobar nearly destroyed in the 1980s with organized violence that killed more than 90,000 people, we visited the Christian Union Sports Club, which used money from the Dutch government, U.S. churches and a local brownie factory to build a soccer stadium and 140 youth teams.
And in a slum outside Bogota, we visit “Tiempo de Juego,” which has used a sponsorship from Adidas to build a program that draws as many as 1,500 participants each weekend.
Colombians love soccer. And these soccer programs provide structure and positivity and hope in a world marred by senseless violence.
I never knew how much a thumbs-up could mean until I came to Colombia. But when I made a good pass in Medellin, my teammate looked back after the play with a big smile and a thumb in the air.
And as we drove across the beautiful green country, scaling and descending mountains, there are military guards stationed in sandbag bunkers every few miles. As we pass, every single soldier gives the same salute: thumbs-up. Whether they are assuring us that the road ahead is safe and clear, or whether they read the writing on the van, “Camino a la Copa,” I can’t be sure.