This Sporting Life: Colombians First, Footballers Second

Colombian football team

Before the St George’s bunting had a chance to grow dog-eared in a summer breeze alive with beery optimism, England disappeared from this World Cup in a mundane flash.

Their two defeats and one draw ensured they finished bottom of their group. But they carry nothing as simple as sporting disappointment in their luggage back home.

World Cups are a chance for petty nationalism – an opportunity for the kind of only half-ironic flag-waving and nationalistic brow-beating we would only dream of displaying in “real life”, outside of these few weeks of suspended reality. With their enduring uselessness, England have cut that bourgeois celebration short.

But whilst Hodgson’s men have performed with time-honoured decrepitude, several other sides have touched the sublime and provoked nationalistic fervour of the decidedly un-ironic sort.

Colombia in particular out of all the 32 nations in Brazil have been a delight. They have played with élan, speed and grace in winning all three of their games, making the smoothest possible progress through to the knockout stages where they will face brutish Uruguay, suddenly toothless up front without the incisive talents of Luis Suárez.

The Colombians play with a mix I consider vital to their success and their enduring aesthetic appeal. Their style combines deep love, national pride, imagination and more than a few doses of madness. You can see this vein running through the history of the team: in the 1990s they had a goalkeeper named René Higuita who defied the ease of sporting logic by making saves with his feet, using a contortionist’s flexibility to launch himself heels over head rather than using a simple punch clear.

From the same era came Carlos Valderrama, a magnificently hirsute midfielder who delivered passes with a genius’s geometric precision.

This irresistible melange must spring from deep within a collective national psyche – because I see the same combination in the novels of the greatest Colombian writer, Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

If the balletic poise of James Rodríguezs’ delicious chipped finish against Japan was an expression of footballing love, then its literary equivalent must be found in Fermina Daza, the magnificent anti-heroine of Love in the Time of Cholera. Here is Marquez on his beguiling antagonist:

Fermina Daza had a pale nakedness, with long lines, serene skin, and straight hair.

Marquez was a master of sensuality, not ignoring the brutish animalistic aspects of the human form and sexual act but rather using them to enhance the vividness of his work. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, José Arcadio Buendía “let himself be led in a terrible state of exhaustion to a shapeless place where his clothes were taken off and he was heaved about like a sack of potatoes in a bottomless darkness in which arms were useless.”

Colombian football reflects this uninhibited, tearaway passion. England are more like Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting from Ian McEwan’s mortifying On Chesil Beach, still stuck in the hinterland of the early sixties; still prevaricating over the courtship ritual of how exactly to put the ball in the goal. As with McEwan’s doomed protagonists, so England consistently fail to find the key to unlock their hidden fire.

Márquez was a Colombian writer and a writer on Colombia: issues of nation were constantly close to the forefront of his work. It is often thus with writers who develop alongside the rapid progress of their countries – I think of Naguib Mahfouz in particular, a man bound in literary terms to write on Egypt alone. When Jose Arcadio Buendía founds the isolated city of Macondo, only for it to be torn apart by war and civil strife over the following century, the 20th century upheavals of Colombia are transparently laid out.

And at this World Cup, Colombia’s footballers have been Colombians first and the expensive assets of their clubs a distant second. The USA have been the same – a triumph of the collective over the unequal equation of individual talents. We have no title as expansive or suggestive as the Great American Novelist – equally, our football team seems composed of well-meaning strangers. There is a link.

The closest we get in this country to a “national” writer is perhaps Julian Barnes, or the tired pastiche of Martin Amis – a writer attempting to cling onto an idea of England that no longer exists. We are disparate, and that is reflected in the popularity of the modern psychological novel – and in the insipid nature of our football team. The careworn attempts at national pride every time the World Cup comes around reflect not just the expectation of a crushing footballing disappointment but a lack of conviction as to what those plastic flags and boorish monarchical bellowings actually mean.

Anyone who has witnessed the play of Rodríguez and his sweet-footed understudy Juan Fernando Quintero during this World Cup has seen seemingly impossible angles imagined and opened up with passes that originate in the purity of the mind instead of the rushing blood of limbs. But read Márquez’s introduction to Of Love and Other Demons and you will start to see that the Colombian footballing imagination is mirrored by that of its finest novelist. Out of a simple news story he concocts the fable of Sierva María, the daughter of an American-born aristocrat who is one of four people bitten by a rabid dog and out of all of those is only one to survive. As such, she becomes the object of a town’s equally rabid superstition.

The Colombians weave magical, sinuous lines on the pitch – and their narratives are just as beguiling.

Madness is an inescapable part of the human psyche- and it has an unfortunately indelible place in Colombian football. During the 1994 World Cup in the USA, the Colombian captain Andrés Escobar scored an own goal that eventually led to his team’s elimination from the tournament. Prior to this 2014 group, Colombia’s team in 1994 was the most talented they had ever had and was expected by Pelé no less to make the semi-finals.

Five days after returning home from the tournament, Escobar was dead – supposedly the victim of a revenge killing by a gambling syndicate for his part in Colombia’s exit from USA 1994. It was a tragedy worse than anything Márquez could have imagined.

Yet streaks of madness serve to make his fiction so memorable. Sierva María is supposed to be exorcised by the Priest Cayetano Delaura – but his passion for courtly romance combined with his equally-felt fervour for the girl’s long locks of hair sees the two fall into a love affair that leads to her death. Even in Love in the Time of Cholera, Márquez’s most lucid and lightly humorous work Florentino Ariza is driven to the point of insanity by love such that his torment is mistaken for disease.

Insanity, imagination, national pride and the frenzy of love – Colombian football combines these qualities to a heady degree. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that the country’s literature reflects the same free spirit – but Roy Hodgson and his players could do worse than indulge in magical realism on the long flight home, if only as an escape from the dreary reality of their own defeat.

Teddy Cutler

About Teddy Cutler

Teddy is a sportswriter exploring where the worlds of literature and sport intersect. His writing highlights sport as metaphor: as an expression of cultures, and, on a human level, as a technicolour image of our own lives. He supports Aston Villa Football Club, which has taught him that sport's losers invariably have more interesting stories to tell.

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