The shaman had been at it since early Saturday morning—burning incense and puffing smoke and chanting ancient prayers to deities all but forgotten. And by kickoff, at 10:00 am, the ritual seemed to be working. Cold white fog was still billowing down the Andes’ Cordillera Oriental, but the rain had mostly stopped. As the teams took the field for the first ever National Indigenous Soccer Championship final, the skies above the former Muisca chiefdom of Bacatá were finally beginning to clear.
Unfortunately, the former Muisca chiefdom of Bacatá is now the Colombian capital of Bogotá, and the shaman is no more capable of doing away with the permanent haze of rust-brown smog than is the city’s corrupt bureaucracy. The Spanish arrived here, on this misty high-mountain plateau, in the 1530s, searching for El Dorado—which has since become the name of Bogotá’s preposterously incompetent international airport—but there is very little golden or mythical about the sprawling ad hoc megacity that has grown around the colonial settlement they left.
With its oppressive concrete and ubiquitous squalor, Bogotá may seem like a strange place to hold this tournament, the most ambitious indigenous sporting event in Colombian history. But the National Indigenous Soccer Championship does not deal in stale museum caricatures of what being indigenous in Colombia means or should mean. Some 160 players between the ages of 17 and 21 were brought to the capital for the tournament, most for the first time. And while each of the delegations had its own bit of “traditional” swag—straw hats and woven bags, a colorful headband or beaded bracelet—the prevailing style wouldn’t have been out of place in any of the thousand small towns throughout the country: elaborate jeans with bright, form-fitting t-shirts and knock-off Puma racing sneakers. Most of the players spent the opening ceremony WhatsApping away on their cell phones. Following the “cultural presentation,” a loosely choreographed, barefoot dance routine put on by one of the teams, the sounds of Romeo Santos, Pitbull, and Steve Aoki’s “Pursuit of Happiness Remix” played on the loudspeakers.
Soccer in general, of course, is a decidedly un-indigenous sport—at least, in the sense that there were no shamans calling down blessings on the center circle in the Pre-Columbian era. And yet, for better or worse, soccer is as meaningful to these indigenous youth as it is to the rest of the country.
“You can go to the deep Amazon…or some indigenous village in the Andean region…and, on a Saturday or Sunday, the kids are always playing soccer, always, and the community is there around the field,” Juan Pablo Gutiérrez, the tournament’s general director, told me. “It’s a dynamic that was converted into part of the social and cultural structure…and that breaks from all those paradigms and tired representations of indigenous peoples.”
The National Organization of Indigenous Colombians (ONIC), one of the preeminent indigenous political organizations in the world, recognizes the scope and utility of soccer as a cultural phenomenon. Gutiérrez, formerly the ONIC’s sport ambassador to Europe, told me that the tournament was the first major step in a larger pivot toward developing “a new generation of leadership.” Young people comprise two-thirds of Colombia’s roughly three million indigenous persons, according to Gutiérrez. The ONIC’s activism is well-coordinated across the local, regional, and national levels, but the long-term vitality of indigenous movements depends on establishing alternative spaces that engage the interests of their future leaders.