January 24, 2013 11:38 pm

Rugby: Minority sport has proved to be a game-changing way out of poverty and despair

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José Manuel Diosa, captain of Colombia’s national rugby team©Andres Schipani

Life-enhancing conversion: Colombian captain José Manuel Diosa

At 27, José Manuel Diosa is already a legend at a brand-new sports complex that is an oasis among the shacks and shanties that drip off the mountains.

Mr Diosa’s family moved to the outskirts of Medellín after being violently displaced by armed conflict. He was a rough and problematic child who was heading for a life of crime – a local criminal gang had already targeted him as a potential member.

Then one day, 12 years ago, someone showed him something he had never seen before: an oval-shaped ball.

“If not for rugby, I’d be dead in a ditch by now, shot in the head or something,” he says, before kicking a drop during a training session inside the Andean country’s only rugby pitch.

The $2m field was built by the government of the city of Medellín, which supports the promotion of rugby as a way of providing a second chance to children without opportunities.

Mr Diosa, a scrum-half, is now the captain of Colombia’s national team and was named South American player of the year. With support from the regional government he also received a scholarship to study physical education and now works as a coach.

Many have followed in his footsteps. “What would it be if these guys were without rugby? They would be running around the hills selling drugs or shooting people,” says Andrés Gómez, head of the Colombian Rugby Federation. “They fell in love with something, and that’s what they needed: to fall in love with something.”

Rugby started in Colombia in the late fifties and early sixties imported by staff of British oil companies in the Andean country. Derbies used to be Royal Dutch Shell v BP, but the sport never really took off.

However, it experienced a renaissance in 2004 thanks to a handful of amateur local rugby players. Backed by a French rugby coach and Mr Gómez, then a physical education teacher working for the regional government, the sport has increased from 500 players to more than 10,000. Unlike other South American nations such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, where the sport established itself as an institution in the upper echelons of society, more than 75 per cent of Colombia’s rugby players come from the most impoverished and violent backgrounds, such as Mr Diosa.

The Colombia national team’s first rugby coach, Mauricio Henao, says: “At first, we had to negotiate with gangs in order to be able to show the sport around schools in some shanty towns. Some people, especially football fans, saw it as a threat.

“But the children who adopted rugby managed to isolate the combative aspects of the sport from the internal armed conflict and the hardship of their everyday lives.”

After having watched the Clint Eastwood-directed film Invictus about the still apartheid-torn South Africa rallying together behind its national rugby team, Colombia’s anglophile president, Juan Manuel Santos, tried to emulate the experience, in a country divided by a 50-year internal armed conflict, with football.

The attempt did not work. So the country’s foreign ministry suggested rugby and the amateur players started to receive some help from the national government.

If South Africa has the antelope-like Springboks, Australia the Wallabies, and Argentina the Pumas, Colombia has chosen a tropical animal that fits the bill, the Toucans. The next step is to get up to 15,000 players in the next two years and participate in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

“Rugby teaches values such as discipline and structure,” says Andrew Wright, a Newcastle-born banker and rugby player who has worked to spread the gospel of the game in Colombia since the decade began. “That has proved key not only for the success of the sport in the poorest sectors of Colombian society,” he adds, “but for the overall life success of these kids as well.”

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