Rugby in Colombia: an escape from a violent past



“It was routine,” Julian, a rapid scrumhalf of 23, told CNN Sport.

A lot has changed since those days.

Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, has left behind its infamous label of a “cocaine capital” to become one of the most vibrant cities of South America, as it strives to attract tech start-ups and music labels.

Alejandro and Julian, who learned to tackle on gravel pitches, are now part of Colombia’s first professional rugby team, and still marvel at the idea of being paid to play the sporot.

Colombian Julian Navarro vies for the ball against Argentina in the Six Nations Cup.

What is Cafeteros?

The Navarro brothers play for Cafeteros Pro, the latest experiment in international club rugby.

Trying to replicate the success of Argentina’s Jaguares in Super Rugby, the Colombian Rugby Federation (CRF) created Cafeteros as its national franchise to develop talent and introduce professionalism in the country.

While the game in Colombia remains amateur at the moment, 20 of the best Colombian players have been put under contract, with 10 more Argentine prospects, to play for Cafeteros in the Superliga Americana de Rugby, a new international club competition, which comprises Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The Superliga is set to start on March 16 in Chile and, pandemic permitting, will crown South America’s first club champion, similar to football’s Copa Libertadores.

By creating Cafeteros, the CRF hopes to form a core group of international players to compete for the national team. Colombia has never reached the final stage of a Rugby World Cup, but the goal is to make it by 2031, according to the CRF’s head of high performance David Jaramillo.

With a little envy in his eyes, Jaramillo — a former player himself — showed CNN Sport the world-class facilities where the Cafeteros players train, located in a working-class neighborhood.

In his playing days, Jaramillo says he would play in whatever position was required, sometimes starting at scrumhalf and finishing the game in the front row. Cafeteros players now train twice a day and on top of rugby and time in the gym, they have video analysis and tactics sessions.

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“We want [the players] to work in rugby, to live rugby, to dream rugby all the time … that has always been our dream and we work to make the dream reality for them,” said Jaramillo.

Tourism has been key to the re-imagining of Medellin and Colombia.

Opportunities for everyone

At the helm of Cafeteros is Rodolfo Ambrosio, an Argentine coach who led Brazil to their first ever victory in Europe, and a placement in the top 30 of the World Rugby rankings for the first time in its history.

Ambrosio is adamant Latin America will become a force in rugby in the future as much as it is in football now, fueled by genetics and necessity.

Countries like Brazil and Colombia, he says, are blessed with plenty of young athletes like Julian and Alejandro, who are knocking on the doors of professional sports.

While Colombia has already witnessed an explosion in professional cycling — Egan Bernal was crowned as the first Colombian to win the Tour de France in 2019 — rugby will be next, according to Ambrosio.

“All over the world, rugby is becoming a genuine job opportunity, it’s growing and giving prospects to players like these at Cafeteros to go abroad and have a successful job,” Ambrosio told CNN, citing the developing professional leagues in the US and Asia as future employment opportunities.

At home, Cafeteros has been supported by public funding from the Colombian Olympic Committee and World Rugby, but despite the disruption that the pandemic created, the CRF has already launched an investment call to attract private capital to the franchise.

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Julian and Alejandro are all too aware of the difference that a real job opportunity makes around Medellin.

While the two brother’s journey from slum kids to professional athletes is in itself a metaphor of Colombia’s recent economic progress, they say too many of their fellow citizens remain trapped between meager job opportunities and a criminal life.

They hope rugby can help change that.

“Until now, we only had football. Rugby is a new door that is opening for us to get out and live off it, and to stay away from the streets,” says Alejandro, who is 22 and plays on the wing.

A history of drugs and violence has plagued Colombian society.

Transformation in the barrio

At home, Julian and Alejandro’s parents are all too proud of their children’s achievements. Their father works as a manual laborer in a slaughterhouse down the road; their mum Gladys is a substitute mother, taking in young children from difficult backgrounds for a period of time to educate and one day return them to their families.

The stories of the kids that the family hosts are those of so many in the slums of Latin America. Stories of drugs, violence, family abuse and absent parents.

Right now, Julian and Alejandro have four little stepbrothers who look at them as an inspiration.

Their biggest victory, the two players say, is to keep the new generation away from crime and the gangs before, hopefully, passing them their rugby sparkle.

“By 2031, I will be 32, it will be hard to be there, as a winger,” Alejandro says: “But maybe one of these little ones could well be, one of the first Colombians to play against the All Blacks!”

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