Volcanoes, beaches, iguanas, giant tortoises and thousands of other natural wonders, side by side in one of the most beautiful settings on the planet. Welcome to the Galapagos! This paradise holiday destination is, however, not exactly the most fertile breeding ground for a career in football. In fact, on 8 June Denise Andrea Pesantes became the first player hailing from this Ecuadorian archipelago to feature in a FIFA World Cup™.
Despite her pride at an achievement that should not be underestimated, considering the modest local football scene and especially the women's game, this was not the whole story as the trailblazer told it. "The Galapagos are a great place to live your passion for football," Pesantes insisted to FIFA.com, delighted to paint a picture of her homeland beyond what you see in all the travel-agency brochures. "A lot of people think there's no time or place for football there, but you can play from Monday to Sunday, from eight in the evening to midnight. Men, women, everyone plays."
Nevertheless, not everybody has the same access to football. When she was growing up, the biggest obstacle Pesantes had to overcome was a domestic one: parental approval. "My parents gave me dolls, but I never took them out of their boxes!" the forward recounted, letting out a laugh so hearty that it is clear Ecuador's sobering experiences so far in Canada (6-0 and 10-1 losses) have not dampened her sense of humour. "Instead, I would go and play in the neighbourhood with the local boys and the kids who were on holiday. They would beg my parents, 'Please let her come out, let her play with us.' My mum would always say yes, but my dad would say, 'No, you have to study'."
Blood, sweat and talent But the budding young footballer would defy these orders in order to take part in the local five-a-side competitions organised on her island, although the facilities were a far cry from the modern, well-appointed stadiums she has enjoyed at the FIFA Women's World Cup. "We played without shoes, in the middle of the street, on dirt pitches and hard surfaces," she reminisced. "We would patch up the balls using plasters. We would hurt our feet; I'd end up bleeding! But that didn't matter: I kept playing and never missed a tournament."
Forced to go and study in mainland Ecuador, like most of the children on the archipelago, leaving her roots and her family was a wrench for Pesantes and she jumped at any chance to go home – for example, as a star 'signing' for the team her friends from the neighbourhood played in.
The culinary arts student is indebted to her years in the big city, specifically Guayaquil and then Quito, where the greater profile of women's football helped her earn a call-up to the U-19 national team at the age of just 15 and the senior side at 18. Nevertheless, she longs for the day when she will be able to return home and combine her love of football with her desire to contribute to local life, like her parents – her father is a marine biologist and former tour-boat captain, while her mother manages a hostel. "The Galapagueños are friendly, humble, obliging people. Generally speaking they have little but are willing to give a lot."
Giving something back The La Tri international is no exception. For her, the choice between playing in a faraway major league and settling back in her native Galapagos is a no-brainer. "I want to stay in my homeland, with my friends, my family, the beauty of nature: my life," the 27-year-old noted. "My idea is to set up a football academy for all the children who dream of playing but don't have the necessary resources – not only girls. The talent in the Galapagos is untapped because of a lack of support. I understood that I had to leave if I wanted to play, but I want it to be possible to play in the Galapagos in the future – and for there to be more girls from the Galapagos in the national team."
Even Galapagos SC, the club Pesantes joined in 2014 after twice winning the title at Rocafuerte, are not based on the archipelago for logistical reasons and the convenience of other teams in terms of travel. Ironically, then, this proud Galapagoan* *represents her province nationally in the mainland city of Santo Domingo, so the chance to fly the flag on the world stage meant all the more to her.
Though this adventure is now drawing to an end, Pesantes had already dreamed up the perfect celebration had Ecuador gone on to be crowned champions in Canada. Naturally, her beloved homeland was not far from her mind: "I'm afraid of heights, but if I had to pledge to do something crazy , I'd be willing to go bungee jumping into a canyon… draped in the Galapagos flag, of course!" There is no need for anything so drastic, though: Pesantes has already succeeded in putting the colours of her place of origin on the world football map.