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The bishop’s weakness

Atlético fan Juan José Aguirre has spent 33 years in the Central African Republic, the world's second-poorest country

Once a week, or twice, or with luck three times, the bishop of Bangassou quietly shuts himself up in a room.

Juan José Aguirre has spent 33 years in the Central African Republic, a land rich in uranium, diamonds and oil, and the world's second-poorest country. This painful paradox is not the only one in his life. He has seen worse.

When he arrived in Bangassou, the old people in the villages were respected and admired by the young. Their prestige was underlined by their reputation as sorcerers, sages, people of power. That was until AIDS struck the land. The ferocious disease hit the Central African population with unheard-of force, and while the doctors looked on powerless, the government looked for culprits. It found them in the old. It had always considered them sorcerers, and set about giving an exemplary solution. Just like that, it ordered the arrest of all old people, shutting them up in filthy jails with no beds, no medical attention, and conditions sure to produce a slow and nasty death. Until Aguirre asked the government for them. He put it more or less like this: "They are a nuisance to you; give them to me, and I'll manage." He did manage; he took them to Bangassou, built houses and lodged them, took care of them, fed them. And discovered that he had just begun.

AIDS had become the biggest killer on the planet and Africa was its slaughterhouse. The number of victims grew to inconceivable proportions, impossible not only to stop but even to understand. Culprits were still necessary, and after the old, it was the turn of the women. It had to be their fault, because as they were diseased, they bore diseased children who spread the epidemic. The tragedy of these dying mothers, their suffering increased by the dying babies in their arms, was the second challenge for Aguirre, who recognized the enemy's ferocity, and did not attack it head-on, but on the flanks. He grouped together the mothers of the dead or terminally ill mothers, and by caring for the grandmothers, ensured care for the grandchildren. Years later, one of the AIDS orphans came to see him in uniform, demanding a jerry-can of gasoline while pointing a gun at him. The bishop recognized him, and didn't argue. He just asked how his grandmother was. The soldier couldn't look him in the face. "Come on, take off that uniform and go back to school, class is starting soon..." The day he saw the kid come into class he knew he had won again, but didn't stop to savor his victory. There was still too much to do.

The bishop of Bangassou went on thinking, negotiated with the government, with his sponsors, with anyone who came along. He opened medical dispensaries, vaccine centers, operating rooms, pharmacies, schools (elementary, secondary, training, adult), libraries. He was still at the center of his community, watching what went on around him, attentive to the greed of the rich and the misery of the poor, building bridges, proposing solutions, working small miracles every day. But every week, once or twice throughout all these years, Juan José Aguirre has withdrawn discreetly into a room and turned on the radio.

Now, while a new war, once again atrocious and devastating, completes the terrible work of AIDS in the Central African Republic, perhaps he has no time for his team's best season in history. Perhaps just now he is too busy to cheer the goals of Villa and Diego Costa. But I, who wear the same colors in my heart, write this article so that Cholo and his boys can now play in the knowledge that their audience includes the bishop of Bangassou, who for 33 years has lived for others with one single exception — his loving, unconditional weakness for Atlético Madrid.

(The Atlético Madrid supporters group Los 50 has produced a documentary about Juan José Aguirre and the Fundación Bangassou, finished on the day that French troops entered Bangui. May peace come to the Central African Republic in time for the premiere.)

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