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Rugby in Colombia: an escape from a violent past

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“It was routine,” Julian, a fast average of 23 people, told CNN Sport.

They have changed a lot since those days.

Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia, has left behind its famous label of “capital of cocaine” to become one of the most vibrant cities in South America as it strives to attract start-up companies and music labels.

Alejandro and Julian, who learned to attack 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 sport.

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

What is Cafeteros?

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

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

Although the match in Colombia is still amateur at the moment, 20 of the best Colombian players have been hired, with 10 more Argentine prospects, to play for the Cafeteros of the American Super League Rugby, a new international club competition, which includes Argentina , Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The Superliga will begin on March 16 in Chile and, if the pandemic allows, will crown the first club champion of South America, similar to the Copa Libertadores football.

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 achieve it in 2031, according to CRF high-performance chief David Jaramillo.

With a bit of envy in his eyes, Jaramillo – the same former player – showed up CNN Sport the world-class facilities where Cafeteros players train, located in a working-class neighborhood.

In his playing days, Jaramillo says he would play in any position required, sometimes starting with scrumhalf and finishing the game in the front row. Now coffee players train twice a day and in addition to rugby and time in the gym, they have video analysis and tactics sessions.

“We want [the players] working in rugby, living rugby, dreaming of rugby all the time … this has always been our dream and we work to make their dream come true, ”said Jaramillo.

Tourism has been key to re-imagining Medellín and Colombia.

Opportunities for everyone

At the head of Cafeteros is Rodolfo Ambrosio, an Argentine coach who led Brazil to their first victory in Europe and placed for the first time in history in the top 30 of the world rugby rankings.

Ambrosio is adamant that Latin America will become a rugby force in the future, just like in today’s football, fueled by genetics and need.

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

Although Colombia has already witnessed an explosion of 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 real job opportunity, it’s growing and it offers prospects like players at Cafeteros to go abroad and have a successful job,” Ambrosio told CNN, citing the professional leagues developing in the United States and Asia. future job opportunities.

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

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

While the two brothers ’journey from slums to professional athletes is in itself a metaphor for Colombia’s recent economic progress, they say many of its fellow citizens remain trapped between scarce job opportunities and a criminal life.

Hopefully rugby can help change that.

“Until now, we only had football. Rugby is a new door that opens us up to get out and live in it, and keep us off the streets,” says Alejandro, 22, who plays on the wings.

A history of drugs and violence has affected Colombian society.

Transformation in the neighborhood

At home, Julian and Alejandro’s parents are too proud of their children’s achievements. His father works as a manual worker in a road slaughterhouse; their mother, Gladys, is a surrogate mother, who takes in young children from difficult backgrounds for a period of time to educate them and one day returns them to their families.

The stories of the children the family welcomes are those of so many of the slums of Latin America. Stories of drugs, violence, domestic abuse and absent parents.

Right now, Julian and Alexander have four stepbrothers looking at them as inspiration.

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

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

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