Soccer practice in this impoverished town tucked into the Andes seems, at first glance, as bleak as the soaring, barren mountains that hover from all angles. But a dirt lot along the Chota river has become fertile soccer territory for hundreds of young boys, almost all Afro-Ecuadorean. They run past crumbling homes and kick balls into goals with no nets.
Now, these children of the Chota Valley are receiving a boost from a soccer star affectionately known as "Tin."
Agustin Delgado, among the top players of Ecuador's World Cup team this past summer, not only runs soccer clinics to help other youths turn pro, he was named earlier last month by President Alfredo Palacio as head of the Afro-Ecuadorean Development Council.
In his new role, Mr. Delgado hopes to use his stardom to improve education and housing, not just in El Juncal but for the entire black community of Ecuador. "I want this to build their self-esteem, so they have no fear of anyone," he said during lunch in Quito, his first day on the job. "There has been so much wasted potential."
Delgado is one of five players from the World Cup squad to grow up in the Chota Valley, an isolated river canyon three hours north of the capital and one of the poorest and most overlooked regions in Ecuador.
Some of these players have helped to build soccer schools and health clinics in the area, and pushed the federal government to pave roads, put up streetlights, and provide potable water.
There is still much work to do in El Juncal. This village of some 1,200 residents, almost all of them black, has two paved roads, a single church, and no high school or permanent medical clinic. Men grow beans and potatoes on small lots, and women sell the produce in local markets. But hardly anyone rises out of poverty. Nationally 70 percent of Afro-Ecuadoreans live in poverty, compared with 40 percent of whites, according to the 2001 census. In rural areas like El Juncal, the number is as high as 99 percent.
But soccer is bountiful: There is always a game on by the river, a soccer ball under the arm of a young boy.
Now Delgado, whose face hangs on billboards that warn against human trafficking, has set up a soccer clinic for local boys from ages 6 to 20. The boys practice 10 hours a week. There is also a clinic for girls. In addition, he pays and represents the best players from the area on an elite travel team.
"This is my way out," says Ronald Rodriguez, a member of the team. He stands outside his modest home in El Juncal, where his four siblings and parents share four beds between two rooms – each one filled with soccer trophies. Sheets hang over their beds to catch rainwater.
While other soccer stars have donated money to their hometowns, providing English classes, school supplies, and Christmas presents, "Tin" is known as the most socially conscious of the group. Delgado has built a medical clinic, which is only staffed Fridays and the closest hospital is an hour's drive away. He hopes to have the clinic staffed by two full-time nurses and a doctor from the Ministry of Health as soon as possible.
But perhaps his largest project is the construction of a 5,000-seat stadium to host professional games. It would also become a gathering spot for El Juncal's townspeople. In all, Delgado provides 21 jobs in a town in which formal employment is almost nonexistent.
The black community was brought to the Chota Valley by Jesuits in the 1600s to labor in cotton and sugar fields and later settled because of the region's arid, warm climate. Today blacks make up 5 percent of the population but have the highest unemployment rate in the country, according to the national census.
"We have been forgotten all our lives, for being black and for being poor," says Diana Delgado, Agustin's sister. "They never gave us so much as a soccer ball."
In some ways, poverty has proven to be a successful training method. Soccer balls roll faster down the dirt lot in El Juncal than they would on a grass field, so players must learn speed and control. When Delgado was growing up, the lot was too small for a standard team of 11, so they played seven on seven – a technique that coaches incorporate into training today. There was no room for simultaneous games, so teams played furiously, as only the winning team was allowed to remain on the field.
"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."
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.