Peru wants to defeat Chile. Colombia wants to knock out Argentina. Latin America's soccer rivalries are in full swing again, this time in the first-ever Indigenous Copa America.
Indigenous soccer players from across the region are gathering in Chile to showcase their talents in the new tournament, which features national teams made up exclusively of indigenous youth from seven South American countries and Mexico.
The players aren’t competing for prize money. Instead they’re looking for a chance to show off their skills in front of professional scouts. Organizers hope the tournament will celebrate Latin America’s ethnic diversity, and perhaps give a boost to little-seen players from some of the region’s more remote locations.
“Indigenous culture is part of our identity,” Chile’s Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz told Fusion. “This Copa America can make that aspect of our culture more visible, and also serve as a way to integrate indigenous communities within our countries.”
The Indigenous Copa America will be held in two Chilean cities from July 16-25 and is being almost entirely funded by Chile's government.
“We want this tournament to be a success and we hope it will be staged on a regular basis in other countries,” Muñoz said.
Some countries have gone to great lengths to find players. Colombia, South America’s second most populous country, will be represented by players from ten different indigenous groups. Some of the tribes inhabit remote areas heavily affected by Colombia’s armed conflict.
“Indigenous people get few opportunities like this,” said Neyer Tobon, a 20-year-old forward from Colombia’s Nasa tribe. “In mountainous areas like where I’m from, lots of young people join armed groups because there are few [job] opportunities. So this is also a way to give us a chance to pursue our dreams and do something different.”
Juan Pablo Gutierrez, the manager of Colombia’s national indigenous team, said many Colombian indigenous youth aspire to play professionally. But it’s hard for them to get exposure since many live in remote areas where few tournaments are held. He said many indigenous players can’t afford to live and train in Colombia’s cities.
"We need opportunities like this to integrate indigenous people into professional sports,” Gutierrez said during one of his team’s last practices in Bogota. “We’ve never had an indigenous player on Colombia’s national team, and I don’t think it’s because we lack the talent.”
Colombia’s players were recruited from a government-backed indigenous amateur league that includes more than 800 players from 82 different tribes. Dozens of indigenous teams competed in provincial tournaments over the past two years, with the top ten teams qualifying to compete in a national tournament in Bogota, where players for Team Colombia were chosen.
It's hard to know who will be the teams to beat since it's the first time that national indigenous teams from South America have played each other. But the region's traditional soccer rivalries will certainly play out.
Peru, which was eliminated by Chile in the Copa America semifinals, is scheduled to play against its southern neighbor in the group stage. The matches between the two countries tend to be hard-fought, and are known locally as the “Classic of the Pacific.”
Colombia was knocked out of the Copa America by Argentina. Both teams will meet again in the indigenous tournament.
“We are very excited because the matches against Argentina are always historic, so our goal is to take them out of this tournament,” said Luis Carlos Velez, a forward for Colombia’s indigenous team.
For many players though, the Indigenous Copa America isn't simply about winning.
“This tournament is about more than soccer,” said Tobon, the Nasa forward. “We want to meet other indigenous cultures from Peru, Argentina and elsewhere…and learn more about them too.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.