Colombian Football: The 90 Minute War

Thousands of people join together in a collective demand for blood, smoke fills the air. Police in full riot gear steel themselves on red alert. I am simultaneously filled with fear, nervousness, anticipation. This is no pagan ritual of human sacrifice, this is no political demonstration. What is about to pass in the following 90 minutes is so much more important: A game of football in Colombia’s top division.

To the untrained observer the reaction of the thousands of fans within the ground, and the millions more glued to their television sets in the local bars is a little extreme. Football here is more than a game to the locals, it is a way of life, some say a religion. It is a moment that divides families, that transcends racial and cultural values. Where grief can turn to elation in an instant.

I have been fortunate to witness top level sport in all its glory throughout the world. From more conventional contests, such as the Superbowl or NBA playoffs, to the more obscure such as illegal cock-fighting in Thailand. Nothing can compare to the intensity of this moment. The two titans will exchange blows until one emerges the victor, their fans triumphant with honour. The other will be forced to endure the heartache and subject to ridicule in the workplace for months to come. The referee blows his whistle and the slaughter can commence.

The spectacle on the field almost pales into insignificance when compared to the scenes in the crowd. Some fans seem not to notice the game at all, dedicating their time to hurling abuse at the adjacent enclosure. This is hatred on an epic scale. Total strangers who otherwise could be best of friends are divided irrevocably into two camps to fight a brutal war.

I draw my attention away from the field of play to stare at the family next to me. A middle aged man, seemingly with his infant son roars a torrent of abuse at the officials following a seemingly justified decision. Here football transcends the generations. The same boy will one day baptise his own son into the church of football, just as his grandfather did with his father before him.

Suddenly the ball breaks in the penalty area and a chance! In perfect unison the whole stadium jumps to its feet in an air of anticipation. The striker connects with the ball and for a brief second time stops. Fans hold their breath. The ball hangs in the air like the sword of Damocles. The goalkeeper, arm outstretched makes a futile effort to prevent the inevitable. The net ripples. The whole stand screams in unison: “GOOOOOAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!” Suddenly time restarts and I am being jumped on from all sides, engulfed by total strangers who are hugging and kissing me. I struggle to maintain upright while bombarded by the bustling crowd that seems to have a mind of its own. Behind me I hear a flare being set off, the red tail arching over the stadium like a violent rainbow of elation. I cannot fail to be completely immersed in the joy of these total strangers. Like a choir, our screams merge into one collective whole. We move together, we sing together. The bond is unbreakable.

The game restarts and the taunts of our rivals continue. We now hold the advantage, and we are not afraid to let the other team know it. Voices merge in collective symphony, songs of our successes in the past, songs about the opposition players and their promiscuous mothers. I don’t know the lyrics, and there are far too many versions to learn, but I join in the beat by clapping my hands together adding my element to the explosion that booms around the stadium. Nowhere in the world is it possible to be so accepted as an outsider as in a football ground. I stand in solidarity, shoulder to shoulder with my 20,000 new brothers with one aim in mind that must be achieved at all costs: Victory.

Both teams advance forward and chances are created for both sides, with every intense moment I share the emotion with my fellow fans. Hope, anticipation and optimism in attack, fear and dread every time the other team have the ball. At times I am jumping with enthusiasm, at others I can barely look through the crack between my fingers in fear at what is about to happen. Whether positive or negative, my heart rate never subsides, its beat echoing the incessant striking of drums in corners of the stadium.

The game enters the final stages and we still hold the narrowest of advantages. All could be won or lost in a second. My eyes dart back and forth from the clock on the scoreboard to the action on the pitch. With one final blow of his whistle the referee ends our torment and sends half the stadium into a rapture of delight. The game is over and we have prevailed. The fans applaud their heroes and the crowd is a sea of green and white flags, with banners expressing their love and unyielding faith in their club. Finally we can relax and breathe again. The losers file out of the ground, dejected, inconsolable. Nowhere can such disparity of emotion be felt at the same time in the same place. At this one precious moment in time, Atletico Nacional own the city of Medellin. The home fans would give anything for this feeling to last forever. Fate is never so kind though: These die hard fans will return to the ground at the same time next week to do it all again.”

Tours can be booked via the Purple Monkey Hostel for $80.000. Price includes return private transport to the stadium from the hostel, your guide and the match ticket.

Medellin – A Proud City in Transition

The lush mountains enclose the city from all sides as the Eternal Spring sun beats down at a consistent 80 degrees year round. Salsa music resonates from a nearby store where an elderly couple share a dance and a bottle of Aguardiente. Colombia’s only Metro system mobilizes once forgotten workers from the poorer areas of the city. Tropical birds dart through the clear blue skies as friends take an afternoon stroll beneath the shade of the tree lined boulevards.

20 years ago however, the scene could not have been more different. With murder and kidnapping a daily occurrence, there was little cause for optimism in Medellin. In those dark times Colombia’s second biggest city was run by the Medellin Cartel and the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. Every life was effected in one way or another. To this day families still grieve the loss of close friends or relatives who were innocently caught up in the misery.

When put into that context, the urban regeneration in Medellin is astounding. Perhaps then this is why the Paisas (residents of Medellin) always have a smile on their faces. They have seen devastation, but live every day grateful for the new life that they have been rewarded. Every new day is a gift from God. They are living in a bright future that they never dared to dream would be possible.

Back in 2013 Medellin won the prestigious title of the most innovative city in the world by the Wall Street Journal. Spending any time in the city you are likely to be told that fact on countless occasions; to the locals though this was international recognition for the hard work and change that they had spent a generation aspiring to. To start from such humble beginnings and rise to compete with international cities such as New York and London is an unmistakable achievement. Having seen what is possible the city are striving to raise the bar even higher. As the Metro system continues to expand, ambitious projects to run botanical gardens the length of the city break ground. Medellin isn’t satisfied in just being Colombia’s second city. Deep regional pride inspires rivalry with the capital in the same way as Barcelona shares with Madrid. Like Barcelona, Medellin innovates and aspires to be the envy of its capital in terms of modernisation and urban regeneration.

While the beaches of Cartagena and Santa Marta have always been a draw for cruise ships, and Bogota as a centre for international business, Medellin, isolated between the mountains, has been geographically cut off from the rest of the country. Tourism was virtually non-existent here until recently and the residents are still coming to terms with how their new found popularity can further their economy. To some, the interest and sense of confusion from the locals as to why you are here can feel strange. Elderly couples stare at the unusual clothes and customs of their foreign visitors. To many, you are probably the first non-Colombian they have seen. School girls giggle at your presence and a young couple thrust their baby into your arms to capture a photo of this noteworthy experience.

Medellin is one of the few cities left where visitors can still claim to be travelers as opposed to tourists. To some, the absence of an established tourist infrastructure puts them out of their comfort zone. Here you won’t find a McDonalds on every street corner, or many places open at all on Sundays. The more experienced travelers see this as one of its major draws. Medellin is not afraid to celebrate its culture and refuses to conform to globalisation. Its development and new identity will be defined on its own terms and will stay true to its roots and proud history. It is a proud city in transition, running with hope and optimism towards a brighter future.