Island’s match of the century
Easter Island is a Chilean territory located in the Pacific Ocean, in the south-eastern corner of the great archipelago known as Polynesia. Given its population of just 4,000, most of whom reside in the capital and only town Hanga Roa, and being around 3,500km from the nearest point of mainland Chile, it is considered one of the most isolated inhabited places on the planet.
Known as Rapa Nui by the locals, which means ‘big island' in Polynesian, the name Easter Island was originally given by its discoverer, the Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeveen - who first set foot on its soil on Easter Sunday, the 5 April 1722. Its natural beauty makes it a popular tourist destination, while the island's ancient culture adds an enticing touch of mystery. Among the most famous of these enigmas are the moai, enormous stone statues whose origins and purpose continue to puzzle modern archaeologists.
And it is on this remote island that the local team will face Chilean superpowers Colo Colo on Wednesday 5 August 2009 in the first match of the national phase of this year's Copa Chile. The game will be the first official encounter ever played on its soil and will take place on the only pitch open to the public, which can be found just metres from the beach and within view of a Moai statue.
The Copa Chile is a nationwide competition held by the Chilean Football Association (ANFP), which gives amateur teams the opportunity to take on professional clubs. Several weeks ago, the ANFP sent former Chilean international Miguel Angel Gamboa, who made two appearances at the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™ and currently coaches Chile's beach soccer side, to hone the islanders' skills before the Colo Colo clash.
"What's the level of anticipation like? They can't wait, of course. Even though there isn't really a football culture here, this is something unique: a professional team has never come here before. There's no competitive football here, it's very much amateur and there are just six teams who play each other all year round," Gamboa told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
Easter Island has hosted two previous matches, both against the Juan Fernandez Islands and which ended 5-4 and 16-0 in 1996 and 2000 respectively, but neither was an official encounter. Faced with such lack of experience, Gamboa admitted to having his work cut out: "At times I have to show them the basics, such as heading, shooting, the role a no2 plays or where the no5 should position himself. They're not really used to training either, but they are in good physical condition and very enthusiastic."
"I've picked the best players from each team. Of course we don't have any (professional) footballers, but I do have craftsmen, fishermen, farmers and dancers," he continued, before outlining the difficulty of the task ahead. "My players are still to really discover what it's like to play a top-flight team, and I'm aware that there'll be a big gulf between the sides. But we've prepared as best we can and we won't give in without a fight."
"This shows that the Copa Chile is, thanks to football, the most important factor towards national integration," ANFP President Harold Mayne-Nicholls told FIFA.com when quizzed about the purpose of this match. "It's a tournament for every Chilean, from which nobody is excluded, and is a fundamental part of our culture. Easter Island is the most isolated place in our nation, but even so the game generates the same passion here as in any mainland city."
Supporting the initiative are Canal 13, who will broadcast the event live across Chile, as the channel's executive producer Antonio Cumsile explained: "We've been preparing for this for 45 days. We'll use six cameras and the two main ones will take in a wonderful view of Hanga Roa and its beautiful bay. In total we'll take between 30 and 40 people as well as the most up-to-date equipment. It's a real privilege for us to be able to show this remote, mythical and marvellous land."
In the build-up to the game, while finishing touches such as the levelling and relaying of the pitch surface and setting up stands and dressing rooms are taking place, the islanders continue to fine tune their own preparations. Players to look out for according to Gamboa are 30-year-old midfield creator Roberto Pena, the domestic league's leading scorer Edgardo ‘Noko' Pasten and Petero Avaka.
Also sure to catch the eye is 35-year-old virtuoso Miguel Guzman, who told us that he is "something of a musician and a dancer, who started out by using a bag full of socks as a ball". Times have changed however, and the versatile Guzman now plays for capital side Hanga Roa, where he has turned out in defence, up front and even in goal. "It's quite a burden to be representing Rapa Nui against a professional team, but this event is going to be a boost for sport on the island," he said. "There's an element of dance to our football, so we might just give them the run-around!"
Another intriguing story is that of 32-year-old Jovino Tuki, who can call on mainland footballing experience ahead of the visit of El Cacique. "I played in an U-17 tournament for Purranque and two U-19 events for Puerto Montt. They saw I had potential but this place is so far away, there's nobody to take you on trial. After I came back here, I wanted to work for the good of the island and never went back (to the mainland)."
Not that Tuki is bitter about the wasted opportunity. Indeed, the striker currently combines scoring goals with managing the island's municipal sports corporation. "My goal is for there to be a legacy for the people here and the island. But my dream, even above beating Colo Colo, is to get more exposure for this place. I'd love for them (mainland scouts) to find some rough diamonds here and for Rapa Nui to make a contribution to Chilean sport."