The World Cup, Colombia, and Communism

Pete Watson | 19 June 2018

South American History | Sport History | Modern History | Political History | Cultural History

The World Cup matters to Colombia more than most countries. As a country with a reputation for violence and drugs, football is a chance for Colombia to present a favourable face to the world based on a colourful, festive style of football.

The World Cup in Russia holds special significance for Colombia. Not only will it remind them of one of their most cherished sporting moments, it will also recall an event that impacted how Colombia has imagined itself as a nation.

A draw might not seem important, but the 4-4 draw between Colombia and the USSR in the 1962 World Cup in Chile was a remarkable achievement. It was Colombia’s first World Cup, and they were the minnows of the tournament. It was a shock that they had even qualified as they had no international football tradition, and regularly got thrashed in South American tournaments. The Soviet Union were European champions, and boasted the great Lev Yashin in goal.

The Colombians feared being humiliated, particularly after going 3-0 down after just 11 minutes. They pulled one back, but shortly after half time the Soviet Union made it 4-1 and the game looked over. Then Colombia won a corner.

Marcos Coll swung in a poorly hit corner, but, inexplicably, both defender Chokeli and Yashin left the ball and it trickled in. A goal straight from the corner, an ‘Olympic’ goal. It is still the only such goal scored in World Cup finals, and made Coll a legend. The Colombians were boosted and they poured forward, and scored two more goals to seal a 4-4 draw in one of the greatest comebacks in World Cup history.

Colombians in every corner of the country, clustered around radios, frankly went absolutely bonkers; they were dancing in the rain in Bogotá, waving flags and singing the national anthem. President-elect Guillermo Leon Valencia proclaimed it as a ‘a triumph for democracy over totalitarianism’ and hoped that next time ‘freedom would triumph over slavery’. There were various cartoons in national newspapers showing the Colombian David beating the Soviet Goliath. The CCCP on the Soviet shirts was taken to mean ‘Contra Colombia Casi Perdemos’ (We nearly lost against Colombia).

The victory was not just a sporting one, but also had political significance. Colombia was recovering from La Violencia, a period of murder and counter murder between Liberal and Conservative supporters, begun after the assassination of Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on 9 April 1948. The National Front government formed in 1958 had established some degree of control, but various left-wing peasant collectives had established independent ‘repúblicas’ in various rural areas, not recognising the central government.

The National Front was trying to establish itself as key allies for the US in Latin American in a tense Cold War climate with fears of communist movements similar to that of Cuba. The US was worried about the spread of communism in Colombia and sent an investigatory team to monitor the situation. They concluded that a counter-insurgency effort was necessary, a decision that culminated in the 1962 Plan Lazo which aimed to ‘select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training in resistance operations.'[1] for paramilitary operations against left-wing insurgents, creating the backdrop for the paramilitary organisations that have plagued Colombia ever since.

So, in 1962, the Colombian government was already portraying communism and communists as enemies of the nation. The 4-4 ‘win’ served their agenda well. In 1964, the Valencia government launched a military operation against the left-wing ‘república’ of Marquetalia in the department of Tolima. Despite being hugely out-numbered, many of those in Marquetalia managed to escape and soon after, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, known as the FARC were formed.

Colombia were fighting against the FARC until 2016, when the historic peace agreement was signed by President Santos and the FARC leader, Timochenko. This will be the first World Cup that FARC members will be able to watch as accepted members of the nation. Previously, they have had to carefully listen to football matches on radios in the jungles and mountains. When I interviewed FARC sports spokesman ‘Walter Mendoza’ during my fieldwork in Colombia, he recalled these times, remembering René Higuita’s awful error vs Cameroon in 1990, and the Andrés Escobar shooting after his own goal in 1994.

Colombia has always used football, domestically and internationally, to portray the positive face of Colombia. The FARC have, since 1964, always been placed as ‘other’ to the nation, part of the unacceptable and undesired Colombia. How significant it is then, in 2018, in Russia of all places, that the FARC will now be able to watch the football as part of the nation, with the same passion and football shirt on as every other Colombian.

Pete Watson is a PhD student in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Sheffield.  His research investigates how Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has deployed football towards nation-building during his mandate. Pete undertook fieldwork in Colombia, interviewing politicians, academics and NGO directors as well as the FARC sports spokesman.


[1] From 1962 report by US General William Pelham Yarborough