- The Galapagos Islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Football is a big source of entertainment to Galapaguenans
- One Galapaguena played at Canada 2015
Located in the Pacific Ocean, almost 1,000 kilometres off South America’s north-western coast, the Galapagos Islands are an Ecuadorian archipelago recognised the world over for their natural wonders. The islands, which contributed to Charles Darwin developing his theory of evolution, are classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and constitute the second-largest marine reserve on the planet, playing a key role in the conservation of numerous species.
Amid the islands’ natural and historical wonders, the Galapagos also have a thriving neighbourhood football scene.
"Football is the most popular sport and has been practised here recreationally for a long time," Danilo Cadena, president of Liga Barrial (Neighbourhood League) Islas Encantadas de Santa Cruz, told FIFA.com.
Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela are the main islands, and the source of the names of the three cantons into which this Ecuadorian province is divided for administration purposes. Some 200,000 tourists visit the archipelago each year.
"The neighbourhoods, parishes and guilds used to put together their teams and organise tournaments on weekends, on clay or gravel pitches," Cadena explained. "But that was as far as it went.
"In 2007, the league that I now preside over was created and we separated youth football from [adult] neighbourhood football. The same thing was done in San Cristobal and Isabela, and the competition became more formal."
With 22,000 inhabitants, Santa Cruz accounts for 60 per cent of the Galapaguena population. Because of that, it offers four neighbourhood leagues, including one for the indigenous Salasaka people, and not just one like the other two cantons.
"In total, about 60 men's and 24 women's teams participate," Cadena said. "Among the men’s, there are separate categories: senior (up to 40 years), master (40 to 50) and super master (over 50). The women’s teams have no age limits."
In Santa Cruz, the winners of each league play each other to see who will represent the canton in the provincial tournament, where the champions of San Cristobal and Isabela await.
"The pitches have improved – we have synthetic and natural grass ones with floodlighting," Cadena said. "And while everything is amateur, some players receive travel expenses, especially new ones coming from mainland Ecuador."
Given the passion for the sport on the islands, it comes as no surprise to hear that the latter stages of the tournaments can draw up to 3,000 spectators.
Cadena said: "The provincial tournament rotates from canton to canton, and the hosts get to enter two teams. The champion travels to the mainland to represent the Galapagos in the Nacional de Ligas Barriales. Sometimes, the representing team is strengthened with players from other cantons. It's taken very seriously."
The Galapaguena World Cup graduate
Andrea Pesantes is proof that a footballing passion forged at grassroots level on the islands can take you a long way. At 32, she is the only Galapaguena to have enjoyed success with an Ecuadorian national team, having represented La Tri on their maiden FIFA Women's World Cup™ appearance at Canada 2015.
"As a child I used to go to the pitch with my family on Sundays," Pesantes told FIFA.com. "The adrenaline rush from playing men's football made it an intense experience for me."
That's how her love for football grew. "At six, I'd get the boys together in the neighbourhood and we'd go out looking for another team to take on, then play them for a bottle of soda," she said. "There would be five-a-side games in the street, with the goals made from stones. As I didn't like wearing shoes, I used to come home with my feet bruised and battered."
The striker experienced the transition "from the initial short tournaments for women to the present-day barriales, where the girls have more space and are respected".
Pesantes, a champion with Deportivo Cuenca in 2019, last participated in a neighbourhood league six years ago, when her other footballing commitments forced her to stop.
"There's talent there, but I wish there were more Galapaguenas who could follow in my footsteps," she said. "Over there, either they don’t see football as a career, or if they do, they have to leave the islands to try to make it work, like I did.
"That's why I'd like to have my own academy to train boys and girls who could make it. I understand the sacrifice and discipline they need. Failing that, they could use football to get scholarships to study abroad."
Schooled in the Galapagos
Dario Meza emigrated from Guayaquil in Ecuador to the Galapagos in 2007 to make a little money in the barrial leagues. He certainly did well, with his time there even allowing him to force his way into Ecuador’s national futsal team, which he would go on to captain.
Indeed, in Santa Cruz he found his true vocation teaching and coaching at Atletico Galapagos, the first grassroots club founded in the island, and done so by locals with an overarching vision.
"After teaching there, I did the coaching course at the Federation’s Higher Institute, and then coached the club," he said. "Three years later, we also competed in the neighbourhood leagues."
Now back in Guayaquil, Meza even coached the national futsal team for three years. Today, many of the players he helped form, play for different clubs. Whenever he visits the islands, he still attends league fixtures.
"There’s talent, but not the professional ambition," he said. "For a Galapagueno, football is a form of entertainment. That said, the matches are tough and fiercely contested, and you can see the passion and love they have for the game."
* Photos: Courtesy of Alessandro Sanchez and Danilo Cadena. Special thanks to Nancy Cellán and Italo Barrera for their assistance with this story.
This article is part of the 'The Global Game' series, which focuses on football in remote places away from the spotlight. Next week we'll travel to Sint Maarten.