By Manuel Rueda | Catholic News Service
BOGOTÁ, Colombia (CNS) — A Colombian priest who dedicated years of his life to reducing violence at soccer stadiums died in Bogotá, where he was mourned at a church by hundreds of parishioners, including some wearing jerseys of the city’s two biggest soccer clubs.
Msgr. Alirio López, 66, was one of the first public personalities in Colombia to address the problem of violence among soccer fans, paving the way for numerous programs that are now implemented by city governments in different parts of the country.
In the early 2000s, Msgr. López helped Bogotá’s municipal government set up a project called Goals in Peace that reduced deadly brawls within stadiums and in some of the city’s neighborhoods.
Leveraging his prestige and contacts, he organized regular meetings between supporters of clubs; their leaders agreed on which routes they would use to enter stadiums for big matches and even which kinds of chants and posters would be “banned” at the pitch to avoid provocation, said Rafael Rubiano, head of a supporters group for the Santa Fe Football Club.
With the city’s funds, Msgr. López also organized soccer tournaments in which hundreds of fans of different teams participated, as well as music workshops that brought hardened supporters of rival teams together. Similar initiatives are now implemented in cities like Cali and Medellín.
Msgr. López, who was a lifelong fan of Bogota’s Millonarios Fútbol Club, said in a 2014 interview with the local newspaper El Tiempo that soccer was “integration” and “the only religion without atheists.”
He envisioned stadiums free of drugs and violence, where fans knew how to win, lose or draw.
“The stadium cannot be a place that denigrates our values,” he said.
While violence is still a problem at stadiums in Colombia and in key matches, only fans from the home team are allowed to attend the stadium to avoid conflict, some fans say the situation would be worse if it weren’t for Msgr. López’s efforts.
“Thanks to him, we can still take our families to the stadium,” Rubiano said.
Cesar Sastre, a lifelong supporter of Millonarios Fútbol Club, said Msgr. López will also be remembered for dedicating Masses to the team on match days. His death comes as Millonarios prepares to play in the final of Colombia’s soccer league.
“He will be up there supporting us,” Sastre said. “I am certain that Father Alirio will help us to win the championship.”