Photo: Wikicommons.
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Moai Favourite Game

The unlikely sporting legacy of Easter Island, where one citizen out of four is a soccer player.

 

It is a winter night on Easter Island, the world’s most remote inhabited area, and the streets of Hanga Roa are cold, windy, and shrouded in a near-perfect darkness. The only artificial light comes from the local football stadium, Hanga Roa Estadio, and is interrupted by a looming shadow. A proud moai, one of the monolithic statues that dot the island, towers over the field. Like all moais (except those at Ahu Akivi), this one faces inland, its back turned to the sea.

2200 miles off the coast of Chile, Easter Island is the worlds farthest inhabited area from dry land. Hanga Roa, its only city, has a few urban staples, including an airport, a post office, a church, and a cash machine here and there, and yet it is hard to shake the feeling that one is visiting a different universe. The local football scene is a welcome reminder that this is not the case. Futbol is the national sport, played passionately by artisans and fishermen alike. The island even has its own league, played exclusively under the eyes of the moai.

Twelve local teams, comprising two hundred players — five percent of the island’s population — contest the Rapa Nui championship. Away games are a near impossibility, so they duke it out amongst themselves inside the recently renovated stadium, with its pristine synthetic turf and its brand-new floodlights. The Estadio can allegedly hold 2500 fans, though, looking out over the single terrace and small seating area, trying that out seems inadvisable.

Astoundingly, twelve teams contest the Rapa Nui championship. Considering the island’s four thousand inhabitants, the football-aged men should number around eight hundred. With two hundred inhabitants split between the twelve teams, this means at least one male Hanga Roa citizen out of four is also a football player.

Futbol is the national sport, played passionately by artisans and fishermen.

If Moe Roa (“Long Dream”) is the Real Madrid of the Rapa Nui, then Hanga Roa (“Wide Bay”) is its Manchester United. Their rivals include Aku Aku (“Spirit”), Koro Nui (“The Great Elders”) and Hoe Vaka (“Canoe Paddling,” the canoe being one of the symbols of Easter Island). The playing standard is what it is: it can be easy to lose count of the goals during any one game, and the matches are played with heart and body rather than skill and technique.

The island has its own national team, despite officially being part of Chile. Their seleccion take part in tournaments organized by the South American Council of New Federations, whose members include Aymara, Guaranì and the Juan Fernández Islands (who are steadily defeated by Easter Island). The tournament is hard to organize due to the vast distances between teams and therefore matches only take place a couple of times a year.

The Rapa Nui seleccion, clad in red kits depicting the Easter Island flag, open their games with a haka like the New Zealand rugby team. This emphasizes the Island’s kinship with the Māori people rather than with Chile. A haka was performed before the Fifa-dubbed “match of the century” on August 5th, 2009, which saw Hanga Roa take on Colo Colo, the top Chilean club, after the Easter Island team was included in the Copa Chile.

The final 0-4 defeat didn’t temper the island community’s celebrations. Nor could it spoil the mood of the team’s biggest fan — the silent moai who never misses a game.