- Football is the most popular sport in Rapa Nui
- FIFA.com talked with some of the island’s players
- Girls and women increasingly practising the sport there
"On Easter Island, football is played for the love of the game."
Roberto Pena Araki is 41 and a household name on the football scene in Rapa Nui. That is the official name of this paradise island in the Pacific Ocean, which lies some 3,700 kilometres off the coast of Chile, of which it is a special territory.
Pena Araki was born and raised on this compact (363 km2) island, whose population of 7,500 is composed mostly of ethnic Rapa Nui as well as native Chileans who work there in tourist services.
Indeed, tourism is the main industry in Easter Island, known the world over for its Moai, the large stone statues sculpted from solidified volcanic ash that represent the home of the spirits, where the vitality of the native islanders’ ancestors is said to be preserved.
In fact, two Moais give an imposing setting to the Hanga Roa Municipal Stadium, which hosts all the island’s games and has been the scene of the most important milestones in Rapa Nui football.
"In 2009, Chile’s National Amateur Football Association (ANFA) invited the Rapa Nui national team to play in the first round of the Copa de Chile here against Colo-Colo," says the midfielder.
"We prepared for two months with Miguel Angel Gamboa, who played for Chile at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, and kept them at bay for 30 minutes. And while they eventually beat us 4-0, you folks at FIFA described it at the time as ‘The Match of the Century' for the island. And for us it was."
After winning the inaugural edition of Chile’s Indigenous Peoples’ Cup (Copa de los Pueblos Originarios) in 2012, the local government began the refurbishment of the stadium, which by 2014 had a capacity of 3,000 spectators, floodlighting, synthetic grass and an athletics track.
"Pele and Elias Figueroa came for the inauguration. And I was there!" recalls Pena Araki, who plays for Hanga Roa FC, one of the principal clubs on the island. The team’s derby games with FC Moeroa can draw crowds of 400 people.
Two tournaments are currently played on the island. "El Competidores, involving 12 teams, and El Senior, for the over-35s, of which there are six. One is played Tuesday and Friday, the other Saturdays and Sundays. As for media coverage, well the league tables and fixture lists are shared on WhatsApp!"
The league champions do not represent the island in any wider competitions, although the island’s football association (AFIPA) is seeking to rejoin the ANFA to have an organic framework. Someone even suggested proposing Rapa Nui as hosts of the 2021 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup!
Pena Araki, who also provides financial support thanks to his tourism business, is always looking to the future. "I love football, and we'll see how many teams we still have after the coronavirus. I'll do everything I can to grow the game here."
Women stake their claim
Vai Iti Tuki is 39 and was also born and raised on the island. She inherited a love of football from her father and, like many girls her age, started out playing with the boys.
"I didn't care. I just wanted to kick a football," she tells FIFA.com. Now captain of the Rapa Nui women's national team, she also recalls the 2009 ‘Match of the Century’ as she was tasked with organising the ball boys and girls for it.
She was also instrumental in forming the women’s national team in 2016. "I used to put teams together when I was at school, and so when I came back here after a few years in Vina del Mar, I noticed that there was a need for something more organised."
The Rapa Nui Sports and Recreation Corporation allowed them use of the stadium, and they took the opportunity seriously. The team’s international debut came in 2017, in a quadrangular tournament featuring three teams from the island and one from Argentina.
An invitation to take part in the 2018 Festival of the Islands in Tahiti gave them further impetus. "We competed in the futsal event that year but did badly. In 2019 we went back again, this time as a club to play seven-a-side football, and we came fourth. We all sacrificed a lot to train for it, and so that motivated us."
But just as they were preparing to face Colo-Colo in November, an outbreak of social unrest in Chile prevented it going ahead. Then, as the team resumed training with a view to returning to Tahiti to play 11-a-side, COVID-19 appeared.
Isolation is tough, as the player explains. "The pitch is like a second home for us, so we miss it." However, it seems nothing now can stop the island’s women footballers as they focus on its social role. "We’ve partnered with a club to create its women's team. That will help us attract more girls, and football will help them find their place here."
This article is part of ‘The Global Game’ series which focuses on football away from the spotlight. Next week we look at football in Mongolia.