Ecuadoran Province Churns Out Top-Notch Soccer Players

Ecuador produces some excellent soccer players, but they predominantly come from the same area. The sparsely populated Pacific coast province of Esmeraldas. What makes it Ecuador's soccer hotbed?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Soccer's World Cup always produces some great underdog stories. One of them, this year, comes from Ecuador. That tiny South American nation is making a rare World Cup appearance. And nearly half of its players come from the same poor and sparsely populated coastal province called Esmeraldas. John Otis has the story.

OMAR ESTUPINAN: (Reading) Segundo Castillo, Walter Ayovi...

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: That's Omar Estupinan, president of the Esmeraldas Soccer Association. He's reading a list of native sons playing in this year's World Cup.

ESTUPINAN: (Reading) Felipe Caicedo, Adrian Bone...

OTIS: Ten players on the Ecuador's national team were born here. Several more trained or were raised in Esmeraldas. Yet the province is home to just 530,000 people, a mere 3 percent of Ecuador's population. That would be like North Carolina supplying half of the U.S. World Cup squad. So what's the secret to Esmeraldas' success? I found the first clue at the beach. There are only a handful of regulation soccer pitches in Esmeraldas, so players have set of fields up and down the broad, sandy shores of the Pacific.

(SHOUTING)

OTIS: The problem is that when the tide comes in, the field turns into the mud slick and the games can spin out of control. After a hard foul in this match, coaches and even spectators storm the field demanding a penalty kick. One player swings at the referee, who ducks the punch.

(SHOUTING)

OTIS: Some say the free-for-all of beach soccer toughens up players and prepares them for the next level. Up-and-coming players are invited to training programs, sponsored by the Soccer Association. I attend one of the sports stadium in the town of Esmeraldas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: The goalkeepers are put through a brutal drill. They dash back and forth, leap into the air to stop shots, then hit the ground hard. During a break, I meet Adrian Cortez. He earns about $350 a month with a local club but dreams of playing in Europe.

ADRIAN CORTEZ: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: Three-fourths of the people in Esmeraldas live below the poverty line. Cortez says soccer is one of the few ways for impoverished young men to help their families and move up in the world.

(SHOUTING)

OTIS: Then there's the issue of race. Just 7 percent of Ecuadorians are of African descent. However, most of the players on Ecuador's national team are black. And Esmeraldas, which is populated by descendants of African slaves, is one of the few predominantly black provinces. The best players manage to thrive amid rustic conditions. At the stadium, the pitch is full of weeds. In the locker room, there's often no water, so players change into street clothes on the sidelines. One of them washes the mud off his soccer cleats in a puddle of water. Not surprisingly, gifted players don't stick around very long. Among them is Antonio Valencia. He earns millions playing for Manchester United in England and is Captain of Ecuador's World Cup squad.

ANTONIO VALENCIA: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: He's a source of pride for everyone in Esmeraldas, says Luis Valencia, Antonio's uncle, who runs a pharmacy. If he plays well, people say your nephew was good. If not, they say, hey, your nephew played badly. Ecuador played badly in its opening World Cup match against Switzerland, losing 2 to 1. However, the team's lone goal was scored by another player named Valencia - Enner Valencia, who grew up in Esmeraldas. For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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