A photo of fans in the football stadium as green flares go off.
All photos: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group

Football Fans in Medellín are Reclaiming the Sport from its Violent Past

The Colombian city is known for its deadly football rivalries, but a new generation of fan clubs are trying to change that with a wave of social projects.
Matéo Vigné
Brussels, BE

This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

Over the past few decades, football has had its fair share of bullshit:  scandalous World Cups, institutional corruption, racism in stadiums and so on. Yet, as a passionate Olympique de Marseille supporter, I still think there’s something unique and beautiful about the sport. Beyond the profit motives of big teams, football is still about building a sense of community and identity.


Back in 2019, I went to Colombia for five months to write a dissertation about football culture. I ended up spending the bulk of my time in Medellín, a city with a long history of violence that became infamous in the early 00s for its record rates of homicide, corruption and drug trafficking. Football has always been a reflection of society, and the city’s football fan clubs – known as “barras bravas” – gained a reputation for their violent antics, too.

Between 2008 and 2020, 149 football supporters died as a result of fan violence. But these statistics don't tell the full story. “Talking about violence among the barras is often problematic for one simple reason: Colombia has been going through an internal conflict for over 60 years,” says Alejandro Villanueva Bustos, a political science researcher specialising in football fandoms. “The violence of the barras cannot be addressed without talking about the violence surrounding them.” 

That’s also what Deputy Mayor Sergio Velázquez tells me when we meet in his office at Medellín City Council. “When people say that violence does not exist on its own in football, it's true,” he says. “Football doesn’t generate violence, the fans internalise and reproduce what's already happening on the outside.”

Football supporters dressed in green and while shirts wave flags, banners and umbrellas in a stadium.

The Pueblo Verdolaga tribune, a barra that support Atlético Nacional. Photo: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group

To combat the violence, Medellín authorities approved a series of preventive measures. They designated specific transfer zones for travel to avoid rival barras crossing paths with each other. For years, they even banned fan clubs from travelling to their team’s away matches. But the barras protested that these measures were gradually killing the spirit of football. Instead, some of them came up with an alternative strategy: To reform from within.

This is how the notion of “barrismo social” emerged. The term is used to define fan-led social projects that aim to de-escalate violence in and around football matches. Their goal is to redefine how fans think, feel and act within football by collaborating with local authorities on cultural, social, political and economic projects in disadvantaged areas.

A football and basketball court with teenagers playing in the dark, as a huge flag with Pueblo Verdolaga written on it is visible in the background.

Teenagers play games in a neighbourhood where Pueblo Verdolaga is present. Photo: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group

In Medellín, there are two main barras: Los del Sur, the largest supporters group in the country, which carries out occasional social programmes, and Pueblo Verdolaga, a new entity that focuses exclusively on social projects.

Juan Esteban Mosquera is one of the founders of Pueblo Verdolaga. He’s also the guy who inadvertently introduced me to the concept of social barrismo when I came across his Instagram account by chance. I decided to meet him at his place in Envigado, on the southern outskirts of Medellín, to chat about the city’s football tradition.


I arrive at Mosquera’s place during a sweltering midday heat of 35°C. He’s waiting for me in his courtyard together with other members of Pueblo Verdolaga. After leaving a job in advertising to study social engineering, Mosquera founded the fan club to support Atlético Nacional, one of Medellín’s two main teams.

“Atlético Nacional is a life project for me,” he says. “My club and our fan group, they are the reasons I get up in the morning. Everything I do revolves around my club and my shirt.”

Working with various public authorities, the fan club reinvests all its profits – subscriptions, subsidies, merch and more – into social projects. They buy paint to renovate houses, hire buses to take fans to the stadium, give away presents to orphans at Christmas and deliver medicine to elderly people in isolated areas. Via their project “A la cancha por primera vez” (“To the pitch for the first time”), they’ve helped people from lower economic backgrounds get tickets to watch the team play live.

A man meets with a happy group of children, and Christmas decorations are visible in the background.

Juan Esteban giving away Christmas gifts to children from Medellin's poorer neighbourhoods. Photo: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group

For several decades, Colombia has been embroiled in a civil conflict between the wealthy urban population and the poor rural population – a conflict that revolves mostly around the country’s unequal distribution of power and resources. In the 60s, after a decade of political violence, two armed forces emerged that aimed to represent the latter group: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Both of them fought a guerrilla war against the government for over 50 years, until they reached a peace agreement in 2018.


Now, the country has begun the difficult work of reintegrating former guerrilla fighters into society and easing any old rivalries. That’s where Pueblo Verdolaga comes in: It’s joined in the process by inviting former guerrillas to participate in various photography, theatre and art workshops.

In 2019, they organised a football tournament in collaboration with the UN to celebrate the International Day of Peace. Over 80 former guerrilla fighters, as well as their families and people from their communities, travelled to Medellín to attend the games.

A man wearing a black, white and green football shirt and a black cap screams in a stadium full of supporters wearing the same shirt.

An ex-FARC guerrilla member visits the stadium for the first time. Photo: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group

I headed to the next fixture with Mosquera and his team to witness a match day for myself. On our journey to the stadium, he tells me how the barras have now become a fundamental part of the community – even stepping in where authorities may have done so in the past, like to help someone build a house.

“People no longer trust the authorities,” he says, “but if a barrista builds it, they’ll applaud and say thank you.”

Some social projects are run by the city, but in exclusive partnership with the barras – like Golvivencia (a blend of the Spanish words for “goal” and “coexistence”) and Así suena el fútbol (translating to “That’s the sound of football”). In the former project, barras organise football matches between so-called rivals – for example, young people versus the police, or fans of opposing clubs. The twist is, they play without a referee, and are instead encouraged to referee the game themselves as a way to foster non-violent conflict resolution. The latter project allows young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods to join the barra’s orchestra, learn how to play an instrument and perform at matches.

Kids holding green and white balloons in a football stadium.

Kids from one of the Pablo Verdolaga social projects. Photo: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group

Raúl Martínez, sociologist and organiser at Los del Sur, sees the barras as a real political force. “When the kids from the neighbourhood get together and work with the community action committee, they are involved in politics – not party politics, but everyday life politics,” he tells me over a coffee. “We adopt a political position and take political action when we work with the kids in the neighbourhoods. We devote ourselves to programmes that are for everyone.”

Deputy Mayor Velázquez agrees: "The authorities are slow, you have to wait for a long time [to get things done],” he says. “Social groups like the barras move faster and understand people’s needs better. They end up solving the problems of the community, which makes the state look at them differently. When we decide to enact some public policies, we sit down and discuss them with the barras to make sure they happen quickly.”

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In a country where many people are more likely to tune in for a football match than a presidential debate – and where the trust in authorities has been deteriorated by years of corruption – it seems fair to wonder if the politicians have an ulterior motive for working closely with the barras.

“We have elections every four years, and we’ve seen that, at important moments, there is a strategic approach towards the fans,” explains Bustos. “So fans take the opportunity to ask the politicians for equipment, flags and money. It's no longer the politician approaching and promising three or four things, but rather the opposite."


In any case, the results of the social initiatives put in place by the barras and the public authorities are clearly visible to Colombians – both on and off the field. “The barras are a key player in the country's social development, and receive a great deal of media coverage,” Bustos continues. “Today, you could say that the barras are almost as important in Colombia as football itself.”

Scroll down for more photos:

A big group of kids and adults standing in front of a building covered with a colourful fresco.

Pueblo Verdolaga organised a visit to the Casa de la Memoria, Medellin's museum of the Colombian armed conflict. Photo: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group

Football players in green shake hands with supporters with disabilities.

Photo: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group

Adults watching teenagers play football at a field.

A social football match organised by Pueblo Verdolaga and the United Nations to mark the International Day of Peace. Photo: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group

A picture of fans at the football game dressed in green waterproof ponchos.

Photo: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group

Group of kids sitting on chairs in front of a large Pueblo Verdolaga banner.

Photo: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group

Girls dressed in white traditional dresses dancing on a footfall field with colourful garlands and a flag.

Photo: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group

A picture of Juan Esteban Mosquera and a group of children.

Juan Esteban Mosquera and kids of Medellin. Photo: Pueblo Verdolaga fan group