When the brightest stars in the football firmament came together to contest the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ at Johannesburg’s Soccer City on 11 July, an estimated 700 million viewers were tuning in from all over the planet to follow the match on their television sets. On the South Pacific’s famously remote Easter Island, however, football fans were torn between watching Spain’s eventual victory over the Netherlands or instead casting their eyes skywards to witness the rare occurrence of a total solar eclipse.

Taking place whenever the moon lines up precisely between the earth and the sun, such eclipses create a shadow which traces a narrow track across the world. Provided the skies are clear, anyone standing in this zone at the right time will see a total eclipse, with the sun completely hidden behind the moon, usually for less than five minutes.

Although solar eclipses happen every 18 months or so, they are often visible only from the ocean or on uninhabited land. The eclipse over Easter Island, beginning just as the regular 90 minutes were being completed in Johannesburg, will not be repeated in this part of the world for another 2,400 years – a long wait indeed for any islander who chose to stay indoors and watch the game. The lack of any public viewing events in this isolated spot, more than 3,500 kilometres west of South America, meant a straight choice between one event or the other.

Among the international tour group with whom I was travelling, there was an understandable preference for what was taking place above our heads. The weather was good and the setting magnificent – on a beach complete with palm trees and the carved stone moai statues for which Easter Island is famed. Although a single cloud rolled by half way through the eclipse, all of us “watching geeks” were happy to have seen as much as we did. 

The problem came in trying to get the football score after the eclipse was over. Most of the other members of the group were Americans who, in spite of their team’s good performance at the tournament, appeared to have little interest in the final. Even my reference to a “football pitch” confused them, as they thought I was talking about some strange combination of American football and baseball. 

It goes without saying that there was no signal on my mobile phone and none of the local police on the beach were equipped with radios. The locals in a nearby car park could not help either since there is no radio reception on the north side of the island. Hope appeared in the form of a guy talking on a satellite phone, but it turned out to be a Russian man, whose team had not qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup and whose conversation had nothing to do with finding out the winner of the Spanish-Dutch showdown.

It was only five hours later, after returning to the hotel, that I finally learned of Spain’s 1-0 victory.

Serious fans
The next morning afforded a better opportunity to speak to some of the Easter Islanders who had not been tempted away from their TV screens by the celestial manoeuvres of the day before, and discover just how seriously the locals take their football. Although it will probably take more than 
2,400 years for an Easter Island team to make it to a World Cup final, many of the fans FIFA World spoke to said they had got involved in the 2010 final by attaching themselves to Spain – on the fairly convoluted grounds that their former colonial masters in Chile were supporting the Netherlands, because their former colonial masters were Spain…

Besides keeping a keen eye on the international football scene, the Easter Islanders have a strong passion for the sport themselves, both in the informal kick-abouts that can be seen in the streets and on the beaches all around Hanga Roa, the island’s only town, and also in the local league – it has to be local, given that their nearest neighbours are on Pitcairn Island, over 2,000 kilometres away! The league usually involves around ten teams each season, the majority of them temporary and often made up of seasonal workers.

The only permanent members of the league are Hanga Roa and Moeroa, representing the north and south sides of the town, which has a permanent population of about 4,000. Apparently the local derby between the two teams does not rank alongside the likes of Rangers v. Celtic, or Manchester United v. Manchester City when it comes to sheer intensity. But as one local fan pointed out, it can be compared in at least one way to the meetings of AC and Inter Milan since, just like the Italian giants, Hanga Roa and Moeroa share the island’s one and only regulation football pitch.

The Estadio de Hanga Roa is a better venue that you might think, complete with floodlights and three tiers of bench seats on two sides of the ground. And, once again, the location is breathtaking, set right beside the Pacific Ocean and underneath the watchful eyes of those unusual moai spectators. Last year, the venue staged Easter Island’s first-ever appearance in the Chilean Cup, a match which drew almost the entire population of the island to the touch lines to see top Chilean side Colo Colo hand the local team a 4-0 lesson in football.

Easter Island may strike some football supporters as a strange place to be during the FIFA World Cup, especially when being there meant missing the final match. But if there is one thing that unites ardent football fans as well as eclipse aficionados, it is surely that feeling that you simply have to be at the big events. For true eclipse chasers, the partial eclipses that occur when only part of the sun is covered just do not cut it. Some have witnessed a 99 per cent partial eclipse and have come away unimpressed. It is a little like standing just outside a football stadium and complaining that you cannot see the pitch.

Only those inside Soccer City really experienced the World Cup final on 11 July, and only those of us on Easter Island could really say that we saw the eclipse. Fortunately, there are no eclipses due during the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, so at least in four years’ time we can all concentrate fully on the football.