In Ecuador, a poor valley gets a kick start
Soccer star Agustin Delgado is aiding a poor area of Ecuador by building a health clinic, a stadium, and providing youth soccer clinics.
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"There was no TV. So what do you do?" asks Pedro Delgado, Agustin's older brother who also played professionally before retiring eight years ago. "Play soccer."Skip to next paragraph
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In 1985, Pedro was one of the first to leave the Chota Valley to play professional soccer. Back then, black players were just as good as those today, he says, but they weren't given a chance. Over the years, the valley has produced about 30 top professional players, coinciding with Ecuador's rise on the international soccer circuit. Long overshadowed by teams in Brazil and Argentina, Ecuador's national team qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time in 2002.
"Saying you were from Chota was the worst of the worst," Pedro says. "Now you feel pride to say where you are from."
The sounds of change resonate. On a recent day, a bulldozer dug up dirt on the side of the river to build a retaining wall to prevent floods that have inundated the town for decades. A group of men fanned across the town's dirt roads with measuring tape to pave roads.
While all of this is positive, soccer is not bringing the black community long-term recognition, laments Pablo de la Torre Ramirez, of the Afro-Ecuadorean Development Council. Rather, he says, it flows with the faddishness of a particular player and then ebbs. "I would say racism is worse today," Mr. Ramirez says.
Indeed, pinning hopes on the personality of one soccer star has its risks. Delgado himself was suspended this week from playing professionally for one year because of his participation in a brawl during a match against Barcelona. Delgado has publicly apologized.
But for many towns in the valley, success on the soccer field remains the best hope for receiving government attention. "Now they are starting to value us, but only because of soccer," says Diana Delgado. "The other towns are not receiving anything, and that worries us."
Amid positive gains, parents and children in the Chota Valley are betting too much on soccer, says Manuel Venegas, the rector at the Technical School of the Valle del Chota, the only high school in the region. Since Ecuador qualified for the World Cup finals in 2002, the number of students having to repeat a grade has spiked, Mr. Venegas says. "I have to talk to them. I have to say, 'Of 150 of you, 15 will be able to earn a living with soccer,' " he says. "If it doesn't work out, how are they going to fend for themselves?"
But Pedro, who runs soccer practice for the Agustin Delgado Foundation in El Juncal, says they also teach dedication and, most important, the faith that they can overcome poverty.
Many players who haven't made it professionally have moved away and become police officers – something that would not have happened in his generation. "Before, we didn't realize we had this alternative to prevail," he says.
Like most Latin Americans, Ecuadoreans ardently love soccer. Here, professional soccer breaks down into two leagues. There are 10 Category One A teams, and eight Category One B teams, according to the Ecuadorean Federation of Soccer. There is also a lower Second Category.
In 2002, Ecuador's national team qualified for the first time for the World Cup finals – a fact attributed to the slow integration of Afro-Ecuadoreans on professional squads. Besides playing for Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito, a Category One A team, Agustin Delgado is trying to make turning pro a possibility for thousands of Afro-Ecuadorean youths.
In his hometown of El Juncal, the popular forward and youngest of seven children runs soccer clinics for all ages. In addition, he has turned the older boy's group into a Second Category team, called the Chota Valley Club.
Mr. Delgado was inspired to run the team, in part, by his friends who were unable to follow their soccer dreams. As a pro, he earns an average of $15,000 a month, according to his spokeswoman Vanessa Garcia, of which, a little more than a third goes to his Agustin Delgado Foundation.