Even though their team did not make it past the first round of competition, this year's World Cup was a triumph for Colombians. Fans won because soccer became fun again.
For the last four years, the World Cup had been yet another reminder of the lawlessness and violence in this cocaine-producing country. In 1994, Colombia lost, 2-1, to the United States--and was eliminated from the tournament--because young star Andres Escobar kicked the ball into his own goal. Days after the disgraced team returned home, Escobar was killed, apparently by gamblers who had bet heavily on Colombia.
That this year's tournament was not marred by violence in Colombia was especially important here, in Escobar's hometown. And it took on an added dimension in the crowded, unfinished living room in the working-class neighborhood where 12-year-old Yesid Mejia watched one of the matches with his mother, Luz Adiela Mejia, and the sports coordinator of a local charity.
Yesid wore a navy-and-white soccer uniform with the logo of the Andres Escobar Social Project, a three-year-long soccer program that family and friends of the late player started in his honor. The program tries to help youngsters from poor neighborhoods avoid becoming involved in the gangs, drugs and violence surrounding them.
"We are not trying to produce great soccer players--rather, great human beings," said Dario Escobar, Andres' father. "The school's main objective is to teach children values so that they say no to drugs and to theft."
Everyone, especially the boys, is clear about the priorities. "I have learned love and self-esteem," said Yesid, a sixth-grader who plays defensive center and has been in the program a year. He defined self-esteem as "loving myself and loving others."
Every three years, 60 10-year-old boys from two of Medellin's roughest neighborhoods are being accepted into the program, at no cost. "This is the age when boys start going into the streets and getting involved with gangs and vices," said Mario A. Gomez, sports coordinator at the Visitation Foundation, which administers the project with the help of the Escobar family.
The project offers the youngsters alternatives, starting with the image of Escobar, who was known as "the gentleman of the soccer field" for his manners and clean-cut lifestyle.
The program's $20-a-month cost per pupil is paid by donations from local businesses and individuals, Escobar said. Most of the money is used to pay coaches and psychologists who work with the boys and their families.
Participants are coached in soccer twice a week at public sports fields and meet every two weeks for workshops that teach values. Even during the coaching sessions, emphasis is on team play and getting along, Yesid said.
"Soccer is what they use to attract the boys," his mother said. "Through soccer, they teach them."
The program also teaches the young players' families. In order for boys to stay in the program, their parents must attend monthly meetings to discuss raising adolescents.
"The main problem is drugs," said Luz Adiela Mejia. "Poverty influences a little, but in the family environment, we can arm our children psychologically to defend themselves and confront situations."
Since Yesid has been involved in the Escobar project, she said, she and her husband, a clerk in a clothing store, have tried to talk more with him and their 4-year-old. "We have always been a close family, but this has helped us," she said.
Sixty young men have graduated from the program. Among the graduates is Alvaro Cardona, now a forward at Bello Futbol Club, a local lower-division team.
"I was really foul-mouthed and disrespectful," he recalled. "I have matured as a person. I don't swear and I am more serious" since participating in the project.
Those are the kind of results the Escobar project wants.
"Andres would have been proud to give this gift to the [community]," Escobar said. "He practically lived for soccer."