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In 1997, an English woman went to Chiapas, to spend time as a human rights observer in the base communities of the rebel indigenous organisation, the EZLN. At that moment the movement experienced one of its most difficult periods, under constant pressure and attack from the army and paramilitary groups. In December of that year, 45 unarmed people - mainly women and children - from the refugee camp in Acteal were slaughtered at the hands of one these paramilitary groups. After returning to England, she contacted Bristols Easton Cowboys, a sports and social club founded in 1992, whose slogan is 'freedom through football'. In 1998, the Cowboys organised the 'Alternative World Cup' in Thorncombe, inviting 20 teams from all over Europe, and a team from Soweto, South Africa. "Why not go to Chiapas and play against the Zapatistas?" she asked them, and the idea was born.
The next arrived in November the same year, while the most recent tour took place in January 2001. The Cowboys spent 8 days in the communities, playing three tournaments- beginning in La Realidad, the Zapatista jungle stronghold. Ten teams took part: the Cowboys and 9 Zapatista teams from nearby villages. The rumour spread that "the whitest white people we have ever seen are coming!" This could have provided the distraction needed to take them to a 2 - 0 victory in the final against the Realidad team. The Realidad jungle stadium is hardly the most salubrious nor the best tended in the world. Corner kicks represented a minor challenge, and knee-high grass tended to obscure the ball entirely. The match organiser kept spirits high with a non-stop barrage of mariachi music, interspersed with Italian-style commentary as the games took place, without a doubt one of most surreal aspects of the tour.
As a result of these tours, members of the Easton Cowboys began to participate in Zapatista solidarity work, an area that has, generally speaking, been lead by Italian, Basque, and Catalan groups. The formation of KIPTIK was a direct result of these tours. They also helped to create interest and inspire those who are not specifically part of the 'political activist' scene, opening up participation and encouraging a broader mixture of people to get involved. The modern professional game is often tainted by dirty play and increasing levels of commercialisation where healthy competition and solidarity is a scarce commodity. At the tournament in La Realidad, there were no sending offs, aside from a few stray pigs who were given the red card for shitting in the penalty box!
In 2006 the club ventured out to Mexico once more. This time though they switched their attention from football to basketball, a game popular amongst men and women in the Chiapan Highlands. The tour saw the debut of the Cowgirls basketball team and the Easton lasses made their most of their height advantage and won two tournaments. The less said about their male counterparts team the better - the Cowboys team went home without recording a single victory!
Each of these tours was a huge success. The Cowboys and Cowgirls learned an enormous amount during their time in Chiapas and many members continue to be involved in Zapatista solidarity work and raising money for Kiptik. If any sports clubs are interested in doing something similar we would heartily recommend it.
Easton Cowboys web site: www.eastoncowboys.org.uk
Photos from 1999 & 2001: www.fellowtraveller.org