More on Ecuador's passion for soccer. And a few sporting moments from our files.
Betty Bastidas is a video producer, photographer and educator based in New York. She uses filmmaking and photography as social tools to celebrate the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity. A recent graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, her projects have featured in the New York Times, PBS, and BET, as well as Vibe, Trace, and Esquire magazines.
Futbol, or soccer, has long been a national obsession in South American countries like Brazil and Colombia. But it is another story for Ecuador, which took 68 years to qualify for the World Cup.
In 2002, when Ecuador finally made it to the tournament in South Korea-Japan, it was such an historic event for the country that everything stopped. Businesses and schools closed while people took to the streets to celebrate. The media lionized the team and the coach as national heroes. History was made again in 2006, as Ecuador, despite being heavy underdogs, advanced to the second round by beating Poland and Costa Rica.
So it is no wonder that this small Andean country of approximately 13.3 million people has now become obsessed with the game. And for me and the more than 1.5 million Ecuadorians living overseas, these victories have also helped put Ecuador on the world map.
Over half the squad that took Ecuador to the last two World Cups originate from El Chota Valley.
As a storyteller, I was struck most by the role Afro-Ecuadorians have played in Ecuador's rise to soccer prominence, and by how many of its national players come from the northern part of the country called El Chota Valley
Over half the squad that took Ecuador to the World Cup in 2002 and 2006 originate from the valley, where people are 90 percent Afro-Ecuadorian. This ethnic minority, originally brought to Ecuador as slaves, now make up about five percent of the overall population.
But in the areas they live, there is little evidence of government investment. I visited towns without electricity, schools, or other basic services and infrastructure.
Many Afro-Ecuadorian families, like that of Anibal Chala, one of the young players in the story, are forced to move to major cities, such as Quito or Guayaquil, to look for better opportunities.
Having lived in the United States for more than 20 years, when I return to Ecuador, it's discouraging to see the lack of acceptance toward Afro-Ecuadorians. Each time I visit, I hear the typical barrage of stereotypes: "They are lazy;" "they are thieves," "they are aggressive."
Yet, in recent years, those attitudes have begun to change, perhaps because of the success of Ecuadorian futbol and national pride in the country's players of African descent.
It took Ecuador 68 years to qualify for the World Cup. Now soccer has become a national pastime.
"Now it is futbol that is saving us," says Ulises De la Cruz, an international futbol star, who played in two World Cups for Ecuador. Ulises, like many other soccer heroes from El Chota Valley, has not forgotten his roots and uses his sports success to bring social progress to these communities.
He opened a nonprofit organization called FundeCruz to rebuild his hometown. His projects have brought a medical center, clean water, roads, schools and a gym to the valley.
It's De la Cruz's success that keeps other young hopefuls like 13-year-old Anibal and 23-year-old Carlos Maldonado determined to make it and lead their families out of poverty. But reality is another story -- only 10 players out of thousands make it professionally each year.
Ecuador did not make it to the 2010 World Cup, losing in a heartbreaking home defeat to Uruguay, but the young Afro-Ecuadorian players in El Chota Valley continue dreaming of soccer as a ticket out.
-- Betty Bastidas
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