Last Fridaym, Colombian soccer legend Carlos Valderrama was unveiled as the coach of the first ever indigenous Colombian national soccer team.
Valderrama — still known as “El Pibe”, The Kid, even into his mid 50s — was on stage when the announcement was made by the National Organization of Indigenous Colombians (ONIC) in front of a crowd of supporters in Popayan, the capital city of the heavily indigenous southwestern state of Cauca.
“Really, I’m proud to be the coach of the indigenous peoples’ national team,” said Valderamma, who also spoke at the event, drawing a redoubled round of applause when he told the crowd Faustino Asprilla, a longtime teammate and fellow Colombian soccer legend, will be the team’s assistant coach. “This is a beautiful opportunity, and a chance for the indigenous people to show their talent for soccer.”
For players and organizers, however, the tournament is about more than just sport. “Beyond the ball!” was the title of the Colombian Indigenous Government Authority’s promotional event for the inaugural Abya Yala Copa America of Indigenous Football, and the ONIC has said the ultimate goal is to draw attention to indigenous issues and provide a platform for communities throughout Colombia and the region to build lasting social and organizational bonds.
So far, delegations from 13 countries, including regional soccer powerhouses like Brasil, Mexico, and Chile, have agreed to participate in the tournament.
Meanwhile, Colombia’s National Championship of Indigenous Soccer — an organizational precursor to the the Abya Yala Copa and a chance for Valderrama to scout talent for the national side — will feature representatives from over 710 enclaves throughout the 28 Colombian states with significant indigenous populations.
“Without doubt, the championship will reinforce in our youth a pertinent and possible alternative in face of the violence and recruitment [by guerilla organizations] they are experiencing in different regions of the country, and in which a major portion of the Indigenous Peoples find themselves submerged,” said Juvenal Arrieta, council secretary to the ONIC.
On Monday and Tuesday, organizers from Colombia, Panama, Chile, Bolivia, Brasil, Venezuela, and Ecuador met at ONIC headquarters in Bogota to begin the formal planning of the Copa, slated to take place in Colombia, possibly as soon as April of next year, amid the buildup to the 2014 World Cup.
The final locations and dates have yet to announce, but the promotional campaign surrounding the event will center around themes like “fighting against racism and structural exclusion,” enhancing “cultural conservation”, “promoting the sport” and “strengthening indigenous-based organizations.”
Organizers are framing the tournament as an invitation to look both inward and out — to come together and celebrate their own heritage and talent and to raise broader internatioanal awareness for the plight of indigenous communities throughout the region. And that balance is being reflected even in the name and structure of the tournament itself.
“Abya Yala”, which literally translates to “Land of Vital Blood,” is the Kuna term still widely used to refer to the Americas. At the same time, “Copa America” is an overt reference to the South American Soccer Association’s regular competition, one of the three most important events in international play.
Games are expected to be played in places like Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Antioquia, Atlantico, Choco, Amazonas: centers of Colombia’s indigenous population where the games will be directly accessible to local communities. But the tournament will open and close in Bogota, a choice intended to showcase indigenous peoples as active participants in the modern world.
It’s in that context that Carlos Valderrama assumed the head of the Colombian team, and already, El Pibe seems like another daft strategic choice.
Valderamma’s languid grace on the field perhaps overshadowed the keen tactical intelligence he brought to the game, and it’s always hard to tell which players will make for good coaches. If his playing style is any indication though, this Colombian team should bring an exciting, fluid brand of soccer into its first ever step onto the big stage.
More importantly, Valderrama’s mere presence is enough to ensure the kind of buzz organizers are hoping for. ESPN Deportes was one of many international publications to pick up on the coaching announcement, and the Colombian press can be expected to give the tournament a good deal of coverage.
Placing one of the most iconic figures in international soccer in the middle of the innaugural event seems like another daft strategic move from a community that suffers from neglect as much as abuse.
- El Pibe Valderamma dirigira a una seleccion colombia (El Espectador)
- Colombia sera sede de la I Copa America Indigena de Futbol (Los Tiempos)
- ONIC website