Yesterday afternoon was declared a public holiday here in Colombia. A nice gesture on behalf of the newly re-elected president Juan Manuel Santos, gifting people the opportunity to have their hearts broken in real-time, but ultimately a pointless one - when Colombia plays no-one works anyway.
Like most people in Bogotá I live opposite a building site. This is a city rapidly growing in wealth, population and height, and across the capital new apartment blocks proliferate. Labour is cheap and fifty or sixty men often work in each site. From my window I watched my local builders prepare for the Colombia v Japan match; half an hour before kick-off overalls were exchanged for pristine yellow replica kits and all tools downed. The workers then sat on girders surrounding the empty stair well, two, three or four stories up, with their legs dangling in the empty atrium, and watched the game on a television that lay facing the sky.
Three dozen builders with 20 air horns is a noisy prospect in any country, but exuberant racket is a Colombian speciality and each of the four goal celebrations bounced and echoed around the empty concrete building before bursting out with the power of a ship's horn. The building site even managed to drown out the competing roar of vuvuzelas, drummers and papas bombas - Colombia's beloved recreational grade explosives.
Of course, by the time Colombia played Japan I was used to the sound of Bogota in full voice having suffered a bruising introduction in the opening game against Greece. I watched the first half with several thousand fans at one of Bogota's open air screens, and every one of them seemed to have a drum, a plastic trumpet or an air horn. The venue was perfect, the vibe electric, but the volume was unbearable, and I had to head to a local bar for the second half (I fared better than a friend who watched with a Colombian family, she sat next to the nonagenarian grandfather who blew a vuvuzela in her ear for 90 minutes).
With the final whistle the city exploded into glorious chaos, people danced, sang and toasted their team with cartons of aguardiente. I bought myself a Colombia shirt and changed into it in the middle of the street just to feel part of that pure outpouring of joy. After 16 years without reaching the World Cup finals the Colombians were back. The next day president Santos was re-elected and became only the second president in Colombia's fickle political history to serve consecutive terms, a feat that many attribute to the all-is-right-in-the-world sentiment that comes from thoroughly outplaying a team like Greece.
Later I walked back to the park to watch the England game, the fans were still on the streets, still dancing and singing, but the compressed canisters of foam that earlier were euphorically sprayed over celebrating fans were now turned on passers-by, there were semi-conscious people on the pavements and incipient scuffles all around, not unusual for any city after a big win, but sometimes in Colombia life still feels a lot cheaper than in the rest of the world. I saw motorcyclists deliberately blinded with foam as they drove and terrified drivers being rocked on their suspension by the happy mob, all told after the first match there were over 3000 street fights, 80 serious injuries and 10 deaths in Bogota alone.
This, along with the actions of some Millionarios fans, who the previous week celebrated their club's anniversary by drunkenly, hijacking a bus, led Bogota's mayor to ban the sale of alcohol on Colombian match days for the remainder of the World Cup. The measures worked, and violence has been down, but at the expense of the small bars and restaurants, many of whom had taken out expensive loans to buy new televisions and who banked on recouping their investments on Colombia's games.
I am a great supporter of small bars, so for the knock-out stages I took a flight to Santa Marta on the Caribbean Coast where they still sell beer on match days. I flew on the day of the Uruguay match and nearly all the Colombians at the airport were wearing a replica Colombia shirts, even those queuing for flights to Europe with no conceivable chance of watching the match. Colombia has always been football mad, two months before the World Cup you could already see crowds of middle-aged business men using their lunch breaks to swap Panini stickers, but the way the country has united behind this team over the last three weeks has been about more than just the beautiful game, it's been about the new Colombia.
This is the first generation of Colombian footballers not have played in the bad old days when teams were openly controlled by drug traffickers and players and referees were murdered for their on-pitch errors. This team represents a Colombia where the cartels have largely been defeated, the paramilitaries disbanded and where the peace talks with the FARC edge slowly towards a previously unthinkable accord. This team with its exuberance, excitement and excellent rhythm represents the Colombia that people here would like the world to see, a country beyond the cliches of drugs and kidnappings.
It would be have been beyond patronising to tell the grown men who sat sobbing into their girlfriends' shoulders in Santa Marta's Parque de Los Novios after the defeat to Brazil that, in some ways, their team had succeeded. That they had left the cup as the world's favourites, and that for a few months at least when someone hears 'Colombia' they will think of James, the dancing and the photogenic fans before they think of cocaine and Escobar. To tell them that this Colombia team will go on to achieve great things, that there will be more chances to skive off and watch football with presidential blessing, more burst eardrums and crashed motorbikes, but that until then we'd better all just go back to work.
Ben Dark in Bogotá (on Twitter: @Bensgarden)
- Sports & Recreation
- Juan Manuel Santos