‘The Only Thing That Unites Us’ – Origin Story of Colombian Football: Part 1

The formative years of Colombian football have seen the national sport leap through some of the most eclectic set of hurdles imaginable. Peter J. Watson writes an origin story unlike any other in football.
Art by Charbak Dipta.

If you think of Colombia, you probably first think of drugs, and then you might think of violence. You might well have seen Narcos, or you might at least be aware of the notorious Pablo Escobar and the campaign of terror he waged against the Colombian state in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You might be less familiar perhaps with the 60-year internal conflict between the state, left-wing guerrillas such as the FARC, the EPL, the ELN and the M-19, and murderous right-wing paramilitary death squads, a conflict that has led to over 5 million displacements in the country, countless murders and disappearances, and a variety of human rights abuses. You probably won’t know about La Violencia, The Violence, a period of political barbarity between Liberal and Conservative following the assassination of Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on 9 April 1948 that led to over 2,00,000 deaths in around a decade.

Colombia is a country with a history of violence, a culture of experiencing the aftermath of trauma and tragedy, a country that has been deeply divided since independence, whether due to politics, class, religion or race, or, of course, by its own geography. Football, since La Violencia, has been a counterpoint to the other national sport of bloodletting. Colombia is a country that has struggled to become a united nation. But, somehow, football manages to bring them together, particularly when the Selección, the men’s national team, come together to play.

‘Football is the only thing that unites us’. I heard this phrase, or a version of it, from everyone I interviewed during my fieldwork trip to Colombia last year. I heard it from politicians, academics, leaders of NGOs, football fans and sports coaches working in the camps where the FARC guerrillas have demobilised to following the historic peace deal in the country signed between President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC leader Timochenko. I even heard it from the FARC sports spokesperson, alias Walter Mendoza. People who don’t even like football still think it matters.

The Colombian Interior Ministry did a survey before the last World Cup in 2014 called The Power of Football which showed that 94% of the country thought that football was either important, or very important for Colombia. The survey was part of the consultation for a ten-year public policy plan setting out how football could be deployed in the country for security and coexistence, two issues which have plagued Colombia over the years.

When Colombia play in Russia in the 2018 World Cup, historical hatreds will be forgotten, politics will disappear into the background, everyone will put on their yellow shirts and cluster round televisions or radios throughout the country, from the Caribbean coast to the Amazon jungle via the Andean mountains and eastern plains. Football will unite the country, and no doubt whoever wins this summer’s Colombian Presidential election will exploit any success.  In a series of articles, we will explore Colombia’s football history and explain just why it matters so much. This is the first of them.


The Origins of Colombian football

Colombians have found many things to argue about since they became independent from Spain in August 1819. Many of these arguments have led to violence, whether at a local, regional or national level. It is, therefore, unsurprising that arguments still persist about where football was first played in the country.

Historians have advanced the claims of Caribbean cities Barranquilla and Santa Marta, the capital Bogotá, and the southern city of Pasto near the Ecuadorian border for where football was first played on Colombian soil. Colombian football does not therefore have a founding myth as other South American countries do. Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil can point to British immigrants such as Alexander Watson Hutton and Charles Miller introducing the game to the upper circles of Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro society or Montevideo, for instance, and then watched it grow in popularity as the natives and lower classes fell in love with the game.

Colombian football really had multiple births, with no one city being fully responsible for the game spreading. At the end of the nineteenth century, Colombian cities were not really connected to one another. It would take weeks, if not months, to travel from the Caribbean coast to inland cities like Medellín, Bogotá or Cali, given the transport difficulties posed by mountain ranges, jungles, vast plains and the lack of good roads or railways. Strong regional sentiments developed, looking to the main city in their region rather than the capital Bogotá.

For many years, Barranquilla seemed to have the strongest claim of being the place where football was first played in Colombia. As Colombia’s main port on the Caribbean, it was a major entrance point for trade, migrants and ideas to come into Colombia, particularly as coffee became a major export for the country. Football in Barranquilla arrived as Brits arrived with the Colombia Railway Company to build a railway between Puerto Colombia and Barranquilla. In their spare time, football was played, and according to Guillermo Ruiz, the first football match was played on 6 August 1904, one team wearing red-and-white striped shirts and blue shorts (now the colours of Barranquilla club Junior), and another with white shirts and red shorts. The colours of these shirts were chosen due to them being the colours of the British and English flags.

Image result for map of colombia old

The most well-known pioneer of football in Barranquilla though, and the man many see as being the founding father of Colombian football, was Arturo de Castro, a Colombian from a wealthy family who had been sent to university in England. When he returned in 1908, he brought football back with him, including the rules, balls and kit. De Castro set up Barranquilla FC along with other Colombian friends, and on 6 March 1908, at 4.30 in the afternoon, the first match was played on a field at La Esmeralda. It is interesting to note that all the players in this first match have Colombian names, unlike those who first played in Uruguay and Argentina who were from British families.

Santa Marta, another Caribbean coastal city disputes Barranquilla’s claim, arguing that football was brought first to Colombia by British sailors and members of the Colombian Land Company which had come to Santa Marta to export bananas. (It was later renamed the United Fruit Company, a company infamous in Colombian history for the Massacre of the Banana Workers in December 1928) Ships called el Tortuguero, Zent, el Reventazón and el Coronado arrived in Santa Marta from Europe, and sailors from el Tortuguero improvised a pitch in El Playón where they played a match against local workers and won convincingly. However, the date for this match is in October 1909, a year after de Castro’s match and five after the match of the Colombia Railway Company workers.

Pasto, in the southern department of Nariño, has also argued that football was first played there. The founding father in Pasto was the Englishman Leslie O. Spain, who arrived in Pasto from England, sent by his father to find where Panama hats were made. He had first travelled to Panama, but was then sent down the Pacific coast to Pasto, having been advised that it was in this Colombian region where the ‘paja toquilla’ hats were made.

Mr. Spain set up a factory and introduced football to his workers, having fortunately brought a football and a pump with him. Practices would take place on Sunday mornings from 6-8.30 am after morning mass; Spain would make the workers jog before the practice, banned smoking from the sessions, and in finest tradition, would give them orange segments after the games.

Realising how popular it was becoming, Spain sent letters back to England asking for kit to be sent out to Colombia, and in November 1909, a match was played in San Andrés Square in Pasto, between a team wearing blue-and-white striped shirts and white shirts and socks, and another wearing all blue. The game had to be played around a water fountain in the centre of the square, and then future matches had to be moved to el Ejido due to complaints by the local parish priest and neighbours of the balls hitting the walls of their buildings. Football became noticed by the wealthy families of Pasto, and soon Spain was coaching students in the Law and Engineering departments in the local university, before the outbreak of World War One meant that Spain sold the hat-making business and returned to Britain to fight.

Despite the claims of Barranquilla, Santa Marta and Pasto, it seems most likely that football was first played in the capital city, Bogotá, and was not introduced by Briton, but by an American Colonel, Henry Rowan Lemly. Lemly had had an eventful career in the US Army, particularly in the Great Sioux War. Remarkably, he witnessed the death of the great Sioux Native American war leader, chief Crazy Horse, pinned by his trusted lieutenant Little Big Man and stabbed with bayonets in the guard house at Camp Robinson on 14 September 1877. Lemly was put in charge of Crazy Horse following the struggle and heard the now famous Sioux death-song as Crazy Horse died due to his wounds.

Lemly first travelled to Bogotá in 1880 to take up a post at the National Military School. He introduced a variety of sports, and football was among these, as an article in El Telegrama newspaper revealed. The playing of sports was linked to benefitting the men of the nation, through promoting hygiene, exercise, strength and agility, and the rules of ‘foot-ball’ were published in the article. A match was played at the Military School in front of then-President Miguel Antonio Caro in 1902, though few others, some twelve years before the first match in Barranquilla.

The outbreak of the Thousand Days War (1899-1902) meant that football’s progress in the capital was curtailed, before it was re-established as one of the sports played at the Bogotá Polo Club, founded by Alvaro Uribe and Joaquin and Tomás Samper Brush. The story is that brothers José María and Carlos Obregón had returned from studying in England and brought back football with them. A first football match was played in a ground in Teusaquillo in Bogotá on 7 September 1902, played between the ‘reds’ and the ‘whites’. The whites won the first match, the reds the second, and then the decider, played on the 28 September in front of a crowd of around 2,000 interested spectators, mostly of elite Bogotá society, was won by the reds through an apparently “magnificent” goal by Vespasiano Jaramillo, as it was described by Jorge González Teller in El Nuevo Tiempo newspaper.

Football began to slowly spread to other Colombian cities, and teams and local leagues were formed. Transport and communications difficulties meant that no national league was formed, although teams would organise matches against teams from other cities. Development was much slower compared to other nations in the continent. The first South American Championship was played in 1916 between Uruguay (who won), Argentina, Brazil and Chile, and Uruguay won the gold medal in the Olympic Games in both 1924 and 1928. By this stage, Colombia had not even managed to organise a national championship, let alone a national team. The Colombian Government had set up the Junta Central de Sport to try to organise and promote sport in the country, but it was not until December 1928 when the first national sports tournament was held, the ‘National Olympic Games’ in Cali.

Football was the most popular sport of these games, with teams representing 12 Colombian departments, Antioquía, Atlántico, Bolívar, Boyacá, Caldas, Cundinamarca, Huila, Magdalena, Norte de Santander, Tolima and Valle del Cauca, though all were really city teams rather than regionally representative sides.

The tournament saw the first major national refereeing controversy as Técnico de Bogotá from Cundinamarca took on local favourites Cali A. With the Bogotá team winning 1-0, the referee gave them a penalty, provoking fury from the local fans who invaded the pitch to attack the referee and Técnico de Bogotá players, who were forced to flee the stadium protected by the police and army. They subsequently refused to play in the rest of the tournament, leaving the medals to be decided amongst Cali A, Atlántico Barranquilla and Magdalena Santa Marta.

The Magdalena team emerged victorious and returned in triumph to Santa Marta. On the way they stopped in the town of Ciénaga, where several weeks previously the infamous Massacre of the Banana Workers had taken place: Banana workers had gone on strike against the United Fruit Company due to poor pay and working conditions, and as tensions rose, the Colombian army fired upon them. How many died in the ensuing chaos is not known, but figures have ranged from 300 to several thousand. When the team arrived in Ciénaga, they were received as heroes, and, in the first example of football helping reduce violent tensions in the country, the Santa Marta team asked for strike leaders who had been imprisoned to be released from jail. The mayor of the town was happy to do so to celebrate the team’s victory.

Football also had a small role to play in one of Colombia’s only wars involving other nations, the Leticia Affair of 1932-1933, against Peru. When Peru invaded the Amazon town of Leticia (a town near on the border between Brazil, Colombia and Peru) in 1932, soldiers were sent to fight from the nearest cities including Pasto. Second Lieutenant Gustavo Bolaños Bucheli had founded a team called 7 de Agosto in Pasto, and was among those sent to fight. When stationed in Guepí he organised football sessions when the soldiers were not on patrol. They were invited to play against a team from the Brazilian settlement of Tabatinga, but were refused permission to play given the tensions. However, Bolaños Bucheli told the barracks commander that they were going on a hunting expedition, but instead went to play the game. It did not take long for the commander to find out the truth upon their return, but instead of ‘giving them the most rigorous of punishments’, as the team won 3-0, Bolaños Bucheli and his men were congratulated and nothing more was said of the matter. Leticia would again become notable in Colombian football history when Che Guevara and his travelling companion Alberto Granado played and coached there on their travels through the continent, chronicled in both book and film, The Motorcycle Diaries.

On a national level, a Colombian national team would not compete in the South American Championship until 1945, when the tournament was held in Santiago, Chile. Colombia had been accepted into CONMEBOL and FIFA during the 1930s, but the team had not been invited or had not had funds to travel to any games until 1945. The 1945 team almost didn’t make it there either. With still no national league, and the headquarters of the Colombian football association Adefútbol being located in Barranquilla, Adefútbol proposed to send a team consisting solely of players from the region, much to the disgust of the representatives of other football leagues in Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla. These associations complained to the national government, who banned the team from travelling. However, the footballers were told by Adefútbol to apply for visas to travel to Chile independently and these were all granted.

Their difficulties didn’t end there; the team travelled from Barranquilla to the Pacific port of Buenaventura, intending to travel by boat down the coast to Chile. They discovered that no boat was making the trip and so had to travel via land to Peru, through the high Andes mountains. They were particularly unequipped for this journey, coming from the hot coastal city of Barranquilla, and not carrying clothes to put up with the cold of the mountain passes. On the way, their bus broke down on the way to Quito, and they were forced to travel a considerable distance on foot. They had hoped to find a boat going south from Guayaquil in Ecuador, but again there were no boats leaving in time, so they took another bus to get to El Callao in Peru. There, their money for the trip ran out and the only way that they could raise money to continue their trip to Santiago was by playing exhibitions matches, but of baseball not football!

Baseball was a major sport on the Caribbean coast, and Peruvians were keen to see the sport being played. Luckily many of the Colombian footballers also played baseball, and played a series of exhibition games in front of paying crowds, before finally getting on a cargo boat loaded with sugar from El Callao to Valparaíso in Chile. From Valparaíso they finally got to Santiago by road in time for the tournament.  The whole trip took them 24 days. This epic journey can perhaps excuse Colombia’s first matches in the competition as they were beaten 3-0 by Brazil and then thrashed 7-0 by Uruguay and 9-1 by Argentina. Colombia’s first official goal in international competition was scored by Arturo ‘Guarapo’ Mendoza. After a 2-0 defeat against Chile, some pride was gained as they beat Ecuador 3-1 and then drew 3-3 with Bolivia, to end the tournament fifth of the seven teams. Mendoza scored three of the team’s five goals.

The team would not perform as well in the next South American Championship in 1947 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Colombia failed to win a game, only drawing with Bolivia and Ecuador, and finished dead last overall. The Colombian press was disgusted by the showing, both on and off the pitch, with stories of alcoholism, fights and poor behaviour by the players. The correspondent from El Tiempo newspaper described the team as being a national embarrassment, being the worst and most undisciplined there, only being talented in arguments, insults and rudeness. Estadio magazine reported the citizens of Guayaquil as being astonished with the scandals and behaviour of the Colombians. On a football level, Colombia showed that they were long behind the giants of the continent. According to the Estadio correspondent, Colombian footballers had learned little and had no concept of movement off the ball or playing as a team. Until they learned how to do this, in his opinion, Colombian football would remain stagnant and of low quality.

It was lucky for Colombian football then, that things were about to suddenly change. The first Colombian national professional league would be formed in the following year, 1948, and a golden age of the league would follow, a period known as El Dorado. However, 1948 also saw the start of La Violencia and the first time when football would have to be used to counteract national tragedy.


Peter J Watson

Pete Watson is a PhD Student at the University of Sheffield, UK, whose research topic is the use of football in Colombia during the Presidency of Juan Manuel Santos for nation-building.