Colombia hopes its soccer team can quell stereotypes one goal at a time

Colombians might be forgiven if they think the Fourth of July fireworks are for them. On Friday, the national soccer team plays in the World Cup quarter finals for the first time since the games started in 1930.

Regardless whether Colombia’s selección manages to beat its Brazilian host and move into the semifinals, many here feel like the team — with its clean play and post-goal dance moves — is already helping to give this troubled Andean nation a makeover.

Despite a booming economy, growing tourism trade and security gains, Colombia is still saddled with the Pablo Escobar-era reputation of being a bloody drug haven swarming with guerrillas.

“This team is admired for the way they play and the way they celebrate and it’s making the world look at us,” said José Pablo Arango, general manger of Marca País, the country’s promotional agency. “The team is helping us close the gap between the perception and reality of the country.”

Just how much has changed is illuminated by the last time Colombia was in the World Cup in 1998. At that time, the country’s coca crops had doubled in the previous four years, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas were overrunning towns and credibly threatening to invade the capital, and right-wing paramilitary groups were engaged in wholesale massacres, forcing tens of thousands to flee.

In addition, the economy was growing at less than 1 percent and would enter a recession the following year. Inflation was running in the double digits. In many quarters, Colombia was considered a failed state.

“The country was controlled by the mafias; it was a disaster,” said Carlos Lemoine, the president of the Centro Nacional de Consultoría, a polling firm and think tank. “At that time, the guerrillas had more soldiers than the army. There have been radical changes since then.”

Colombia’s team in 1998 was also playing under a cloud. In the previous World Cup, held in the United States, the squad made global headlines when defender Andres Escobar deflected the ball into his own goal. The United States won the match 2-1 and Colombia was sent packing.

Ten days later, 27-year-old Escobar was gunned down in a Medellin parking lot — apparently in retaliation for the mistake. The triggerman, Humberto Muñoz, was the driver and bodyguard for two men with suspected drug and paramilitary ties. Muñoz was sentenced to 43 years in prison but released after 11.

His superiors were never tried and the incident only reinforced Colombia’s image as a brutal gangland where no one — not even sports stars — was safe.

Fast-forward 16 years and the country and the team are back in the spotlight for all the right reasons. The world has been riveted as eighth-ranked Colombia ripped through every challenger in its group and beat Uruguay on Saturday for a spot in the quarter-finals.

In particular, clean-cut 22-year-old midfielder James Rodriguez has dazzled the press. Not only is he the tournament’s leading scorer, besting the likes of Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar, but he’s also credited with one of the most beautiful goals of the tournament: a stunning 25-yard spinning kick against Uruguay.

London’s Daily Mail called him “The poster boy who has illuminated this World Cup.”

On the day of that goal, Hollywood A-Lister Will Smith was in Ibagué with Puerto Rican Singer Marc Anthony. Smith donned a team jersey and flexed his muscles to screaming crowds and, no doubt, to the delight of Colombia boosters.

The spotlight couldn’t come at a better time, promotions man Arango said.

“This is a great moment for the world to see us as a place to invest, a place to do tourism a place to set up a business,” he said. “This country has changed and people need to understand that.”

The statistics support his enthusiasm. Colombia’s gross domestic product in the first quarter surged 6.4 percent, faster than any other country in the region. Foreign direct investment, a sign of international confidence, topped $16.7 billion in 2013 — 83 times more money than came into the country when its last World Cup appearance happened.

Coca production, while still a problem, is hovering near 13 year lows, and Peru now holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s top grower. And Colombia has cut its homicide rate in half since 1998.

Perhaps most important, after more than 50 years of civil conflict that has left more than 220,000 dead, peace seems within reach. Government and FARC negotiators have been meeting in Cuba for 20 months and progress has been slow but steady. President Juan Manuel Santos, who won reelection in May, also recently announced that talks with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) could start soon.

Even so, problems persist. This week, the FARC and ELN staged deadly attacks and new criminal threats are on the rise. And even the World Cup euphoria has a dark side: Post-victory partying has led to confrontations and at least a dozen deaths in the capital.

On game days, Mayor Gustavo Petro has banned alcohol sales and made it a crime to throw flour (a traditional way to celebrate) but the violence has gone unabated.

“Every time we win a game people celebrate like we just won the World Cup,” said Gerardo Cardona, 54, a salesman hawking knockoff Colombian jerseys in downtown Bogotá. “Everyone’s crazy because we’ve never made it this far.”

Santos has declared Friday afternoon a government holiday and the capital is expecting more than 120,000 fans to gather around outdoor screens.

“The entirety of Colombia is proud of our team because our team is showing us the way,” Santos said recently. “When you think big and act big you can reach your goals. And that’s what the team is telling all Colombians.”

But stereotypes are hard to kill. As the games began, Dutch Actress and UNICEF goodwill ambassador Nicolette Van Dam sent out a manipulated photograph that depicted two of Colombia’s star players snorting the white foam that referees use to mark positions.

The photograph and an almost identical Italian cartoon raised hackles here. Van Dam lost her U.N. gig and the Italian cartoonist eventually apologized. 

“We’ve had 50 years of negative history and 50 years of bad news,” Arango said. “It’s hard to change that overnight.”

But a victory on Friday would be a good start.

Related stories from Miami Herald