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Learning to resolve conflict

Seguro Medellín, in Colombia, is a city in desperate need of conflict resolution

2006 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Forgiveness and reconciliation – Footsteps 68

How to support each other to restore broken relationships

Medellín, in Colombia, is a city in desperate need of conflict resolution. It has suffered from two decades of armed conflict between criminal gangs, socialist guerrillas and paramilitary groups. Murders are common. This conflict has directly impacted on the lives of a generation of children and young people who have been born and have grown up in this context of violence. Many of the armed groups are formed of young people of both sexes, between 14 and 25 years old.

Club Deportivo works with young people caught up in the violence. We have observed the skills and abilities that local communities develop in order to survive and resolve conflicts within this context of long-term violence. We set ourselves the task of identifying these strengths and building upon them. We did this through a combination of games, research, and training in conflict resolution.

Photo: Jim Loring

Photo: Jim Loring

Using football to train peace negotiators

The game of football is very popular with young people. It offers an atmosphere of tension similar to that of an armed conflict. We organised a football tournament called the ‘Peace Negotiators’ Cup’ which had the following special characteristics:

Mixed teams The teams had to include both male and female players. At least five female players had to be present for each game to start. Young women were keen to participate because they saw the experience as an opportunity to improve their sporting skills. At first, the boys were reluctant to play with girls, but as the tournament progressed, they noticed that the girls were good competitors and they began to accept them as equals. We also found that the girls respected the rules more and put pressure on the boys to follow them!

No referee The players themselves (of both sexes) had to resolve any situations of conflict in the game.

No set rules The players had to suggest and agree on the rules for each game.

Observer We assigned an observer for each game to record what happened on the pitch. This person did not interfere with negotiations to resolve conflicts. However, if violence broke out the observer had the power to immediately send off any players who had resorted to violence. 

These adaptations meant that during the game each player was repeatedly faced by situations of conflict where they had to draw on their abilities to negotiate and to find reconciliation. The tournament was held monthly, and the desire to win the competition motivated people to participate.

Resolving conflict

The children and young people in the tournament had grown up surrounded by violence. However, during games they showed the ability to manage conflicts using alternative, peaceful methods, although they did occasionally resort to violence. Some of the methods they used were:

Protest Even in the heat of the game, players were able to cause the opposing team to acknowledge their fouls by stopping the game in peaceful protest. They did this by:

  • holding on to the ball so that the game had to stop
  • remaining completely quiet and still (as though paralysed).

Mediation The players practised mediation skills by:

  • bringing together the people who were playing unfairly and making them choose to play fair or leave the game
  • working together with players in other teams to ensure fair play, or to strengthen the participation of girls
  • intervening to prevent physical aggression when some of the players became violent.

Reconciliation When confusing situations arose, the teams entered into discussion, without resorting to violence, until they reached an agreement. Reconciliation was possible because:

  • they agreed at the start on rules for the games, and ensured they were kept through discussion and other non-violent means
  • they would ask the opinion of third parties to help resolve complex conflicts such as contested goals.

Sometimes, both teams would be unaware of a foul. It might seem that it affected just one player. But we were able to show them how this could grow to become an unmanageable conflict. It should not be ignored, it should be resolved immediately.

It has been interesting to observe the children and young people putting their abilities and skills into practice during the conflicts that arose in each game. It gave us insight into people’s potential for managing conflict. Local communities can often be seen as simply the weak victims of violence. But people who live through prolonged armed conflict, like the people of Medellín, learn how to survive, to make the best of things and even how to make a difference to the conflict. There has been much bloodshed, but conflict can also provide an opportunity to learn. In Medellín we have learned that the local community is not helpless, it has the potential to bring change for the good.

In this project we also noted the ability of the young women to have their rights respected in the company of men. When the boys would not pass them the ball, the girls joined together and refused to take part in the game. They also often took the initiative in resolving conflicts. In some cases, girls were team captains.

The project has had an impact on the wider society as the participants applied what they have learned on the pitch in their communities. 

We have noticed that there is more respect for women. This is evident when women are now using public facilities such as football grounds. There is also less resorting to violence as a way of resolving conflicts.

This project provided an environment in which to develop skills in conflict resolution. A project like this could be run anywhere in the world where there is prolonged urban armed conflict and where team sports are practised (it does not need to be football). The sport needs to involve a struggle for something difficult to achieve, where each team competes to be champion. The project can then combine the sport with research and conflict resolution training.

Duberney Rojas is Project Manager of Club Deportivo.
Club Deportivo
AA 5238

Email: [email protected]

Case Study: Equal rights

During one of the games, one of the girls overheard her male companions planning to avoid passing the ball to the girls. When she heard this, she gathered together the other female players and they all agreed, in protest, not to play. When the girls told the boys about their decision, the boys found themselves having to plead with the girls to join in the game – otherwise they would lose, since the rules of the tournament said that there should be at least five female players on the pitch. The girls used this opportunity to negotiate that the boys had to pass them the ball and that one of the girls could be captain. The boys agreed to these conditions and the game went ahead. From then on, the girls saw how the rules of the game provided an effective tool for creating more equality between the sexes, and the boys understood that they had to respect women’s rights. 


Conflict - a serious disagreement or argument, or even an armed struggle. Conflict is caused when two or more people or groups have, or think they have, different views or goals 

Guerrilla - person in an independent armed force 

Mediator - a person or organisation who facilitates discussion and reconciliation between people or groups in conflict 

Negotiate - to try to come to agreement about something through discussion 

Psychological - relating to the mind or emotions 

Reconciliation - the restoration of relationships 

Restoration - rebuilding something that has been damaged trauma a physical or emotional wound that creates lasting damage

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