The Red Poncho
Mushuc Ruma are a football team, but also a vital symbol of Ecuador’s indigenous people
Luis Chango’s poncho is red. Blood red. Chango is the owner of Mushuc Runa Sporting Club and his traditional indigenous attire is rarely found in the directors’ boxes of top-flight football clubs across South America.
Chango is one of Ecuador’s estimated 2.5 million indigenous Quechua and his poncho, worn over a white shirt and white slacks, is more than just a natty fashion statement – it emphasises his ties to the Chibuleo community in the province of Tungurahua. The red on the poncho worn by Chango symbolises the historic bloodshed suffered by his people. Blood spilled by the pueblo at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, Incas, and others who took life and land which was not theirs.
More than 90 per cent of Ecuador’s indigenous population live in the valleys of the Sierra region, but football has played little part in their daily lives and culture. “The indigenous communities never played football,” Chango explained. “My father doesn’t know what it’s like to kick a ball. The 50 to 60 year olds in our communities have never played it. Football is even seen as cursed in the communities, but we need to break these mental paradigms.”
The stance of Chango’s parents and their generation is, to a large degree, understandable. There has been a reluctance to embrace football, which is seen as alien to the traditions and culture of Ecuador’s indigenous populations who, like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, have long suffered from discrimination and racism. “In the 1970s and 1980s an indígena wearing a poncho could not even enter a square or a park, and if someone passed by they forced him to sweep the place,” wrote the Ecuadorian anthropologist Fernando García.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), founded in 1986, gave them an organised political voice after decades of silence, or being silenced, in the wake of economic struggles in the country which impacted on communities. CONAIE mobilised an indigenous uprising in 1990, on the 500th anniversary year of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, which saw thousands of demonstrators block motorways, occupy main roads in the capital Quito and fill city plazas. The protests continued throughout the decade and tended to non-violence, filling the streets with traditional dance, art and song.
Ecuador’s indigenous population had gained a platform to fight for their rights, and their actions inspired similar movements in Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala and Mexico. During these protests, owning a football club was a distant dream for Luis Chango – but he made a well-timed foray into the financial industry which would turn it into a reality quicker than he imagined. 38 young indigenous people and peasants from Pilahuín, Chibuleo and Quisapincha in the Province of Tungurahua set up the Mushuc Runa Cooperativa de Ahorro y Crédito [Co-operative of Saving and Credit] in December 1997 with Chango at the helm.
They had struck at exactly the right moment. On 8 March 1999, Ecuadorians woke up to the news that president Jamil Mahuad had declared a “banking holiday” and all the country’s institutions closed their doors for five days. Mahuad’s decision, which sparked outrage among citizens who tried to break down the doors of banks, had been made in a bid to save the country’s private banking system which had failed to maintain liquidity. The government froze all bank accounts with more than US$500 for a year and transferred millions to the banks to keep them solvent. Despite the measures a total of 16 banks, including the country’s two largest, closed because of the crisis. In January 2000 Ecuador abandoned its own currency, the Sucre, and adopted the US dollar in a bid to bring stability to the country’s economy. Almost everybody in Ecuador was affected by the financial turmoil.
The situation led to a grave distrust of banks and it was to Mushuc Runa’s cooperative and credit union, headed by Chango, that indigenous people turned in their droves. “Mushuc Runa provided loans to the indigenous people during the bank holiday, and we have had a great success since that time,” explained Luis Chango’s daughter Karina. “It stood out as a cooperativa that was born of a people – honest and transparent – and where there is the good management of their finances.”
In a short space of time Luis Chango, who had trained as a lawyer, had become a millionaire as the business grew. He would then put his wealth into his major passion.
Luis Alfonso Chango had always loved football. In his childhood he played the game in barley fields with improvised goals, using a ball of rags which got caught on barbed wire fences. He later formed an amateur team of his friends, although he kept it a secret from his parents. Football, in their eyes, was for “lazy people, who had nothing to do” and he was supposed to be putting his energies into selling garlic at the local market.
In January 2003 he founded Mushuc Runa Sporting Club, with the football wing as the flagship which carried the name of the cooperative. “The name Mushuc Runa means ‘New Men’ in Quechua,” Chango said. “Indigenous men who were born 30 years ago were not included in any sphere of our country. We lived in discrimination, we lived in illiteracy. For these reasons I arrived at the name Mushuc Runa: new men, new ideas, new academic studies with entrepreneurial initiatives, with a new vision, with a new dream, all of this is why the name is Mushuc Runa.”
The club’s badge is a man wearing a red poncho and kicking a football on a green background. Their nickname is, naturally, El Ponchito.
Mushuc Runa started right at the bottom of Ecuador’s football pyramid, playing in the neighbourhood leagues of the Juan B Vela and Pilahuín parishes. From humble beginnings, though, they began a dizzying journey through Ecuador’s regional leagues until they reached Serie B, one step from the top flight, in 2011. Promotion to Ecuador’s Serie A was achieved two years later, just over a decade after the club had been formed. Chango was rubbing shoulders with directors of Barcelona, Emelec and LDU Quito.
“Of course, I wore my poncho,” Chango said. “Because it is our identity. We speak Quechua, we have customs, we have traditions. It is our culture. We have our own identity.”
Even in football, it is difficult not to sense the underlying discrimination which comes to the surface. Luis Muentes, the president of Ecuador’s referees’ association, for instance, said Chango must “must devote himself to raising sheep and llamas and not football” after Mushuc Runa’s owner was critical of the standard of officiating in one match.
In 2008 Ecuador’s government, under president Rafael Correa, revised the country’s constitution to give greater recognition to the rights of all communities including indigenous. The aim was to ensure people could freely maintain, develop and strengthen their identity, sense of belonging, ancestral traditions and forms of social organisations. It acknowledged their right not to be subject to racism or any form of discrimination on the basis of origin, ethnicity or cultural identity. “Ecuadorian nationality is a political and legal bond between individuals and the state,” the amended constitution said. “Without detriment to their belonging to any of the other indigenous nations that coexist in plurinational Ecuador.”
Correa, who described himself as a 21st-century socialist, had learned Quechua and quoted Martin Luther King in relation to the struggles of Afro-Ecuadorians and indigenous communities ahead of his election. The constitutional changes were an important political statement, and long overdue, although when he took office the realpolitik of governing Ecuador saw Correa clash with CONAIE and indigenous groups on numerous occasions. Correa served three terms as president but has now exiled himself in Belgium with an arrest warrant hanging over him for alleged involvement in the 2012 kidnapping of an opponent. Lenin Moreno, who served as Correa’s deputy, was elected president in 2017.
Chango acknowledged there has been change in recent times, but it has been slow. Racism, discrimination and prejudice – both from within Ecuador and those outside influences looking to exploit the country’s resources – still exist for indigenous people who face greater challenges in every walk of life. “Mushuc Runa has neither the support of the national government nor the provincial government,” Chango said. “We have faced strong discrimination. Obstacles. Despite all the adversities we go ahead.”
Chango’s daughter Karina stood as a candidate for the vice-presidency of the Ecuadorian Football Federation last January, having filled a similar role at Mushuc Runa, but was not elected. On the pitch, Mushuc Runa have yo-yoed between the top two divisions in recent seasons but under the current manager, the Argentinian Martín Cardetti, they found some stability in 2019.
Cardetti has a sergeant-major appearance – squat, stocky with short cropped hair, greying at the temples – but as he umpires a game of football-tennis at Mushuc Runa’s training ground, on a sunny morning 24 hours before a match against Barcelona, he is congenial. Nicknamed Chapulín, the Grasshopper, he forged a playing career as a livewire forward with Rosario Central and River Plate which eventually earned him a move to Paris Saint-Germain. There he became the foil to the mercurial talents of the Brazilian Ronaldinho in the 2002-03 season as his compatriot Mauricio Pochettino marshalled PSG’s backline.
After training Cardetti, wearing a padded green Mushuc Runa coat, opened a door marked Director Técnico (managers are referred to as ‘DT’ in Ecuador) and sat down behind a wooden desk in his functional office. In front of him was a half-eaten pack of Maria branded biscuits next to piles of notes. Behind them were blue metal counters arranged on a tactics board.
“It is different,” acknowledged Cardetti, when asked about the Mushuc Runa’s raison d’être under Chango. Cardetti’s previous managerial postings were with San Carlos and Uruguay de Coronado in Costa Rica, sandwiched either side of a short stint with Concepción in Argentina’s lower leagues. “The origin of the club is indigenous,” he said. “We are making a project that starts from the youth team and that works towards giving us players for the first division. With the indigenous guys, and all of our youth that we have here, the idea is to start little by little, get everyone involved with the bigger picture. I understand my part on the team and we try to be a part of growing as a whole.”
Despite the broader vision at Mushuc Runa, Cardetti, who cites the former PSG coach Luis Fernández as a managerial influence, realises the normal shelf life of a football manager determines his own modus operandi. He is judged on results, performance and league positions and is not under pressure to play indigenous players despite the broader philosophy.
Mushuc Runa currently have two who identify as such in their squad, the experienced midfielder Serafín Pandi and the reserve goalkeeper César Sisa. “Pandi has been with Mushuc Runa since the foundation of the club,” Cardetti said. “We want to bring in more players. This is the larger picture and expectation that the president has. In each age group now there are always two or three indigenous guys playing but there are challenges. For example, in Argentina the kids will just be playing football. In contrast, the culture here for many indigenous people is that kids will be going out and working from the age of five.”
In 2015 Chile hosted the inaugural Copa Americana de Pueblos Indígenas, an eight-team tournament organised by Conmebol. In the group stages Ecuador played out a 2-2 draw with the eventual finalists Colombia. During it, an agile winger with an upright posture from the opposition caught the eye. The raw 18-year-old was part of the Wayúu indigenous population, based largely in the north of Colombia, and scored four goals in five matches.
After the tournament, Carlos Valderrama, who coached Colombia’s indigenous team, telephoned his former club Junior de Barranquilla and pleaded with them to sign the teenager. Four years later the player, Luis Díaz, was playing for the full Colombia national team at the 2019 Copa América after being selected by Carlos Queiroz. He joined the Portuguese side Porto not long after the tournament.
Díaz was playing amateur league football in his home town of Barrancas in his late teens and might have been missed but for the indigenous Copa América. His rapid rise indicates the pool of talent which sometimes exists outside of formal club football structure, away from youth-team scouting.
Football was never taken seriously by indigenous communities but that is something Mushuc Runa are starting to change.
After first-team training had finished César Sisa made his way to a different pitch to oversee a youth-team match. The Complejo Mushuc Runa, in Santa Lucia on the outskirts of Ambato, is a hive of activity on a Saturday morning as a range of the club’s youth and women’s teams turn up for training and matches.
As well as the ubiquitous advertising for Chango’s cooperative, the training ground has nods to indigenous culture. Ambato is famous for its annual fiesta de las frutas y flores [festival of fruits and flowers] and on winning promotion to Ecuador’s Serie A in 2013 the players drank champagne while wearing crowns made of flowers. Throughout the site are baskets of colourful plants. Some are placed inside pots, but others hang out of old car tyres which have been painted. There is also a fruit orchard inside the training ground. On the same site Chango is constructing an indigenous cultural centre and the first part, a farm with alpacas, goats, rabbits and pigs, is in place. Even the guard in the security booth at the main entrance wears a red poncho. It all adds to a sense of familiarity and cultural identity. Sisa believes the raw football talent has always existed in indigenous communities but the lack of a professional outlet meant it was rarely harnessed.
“The problem that we had before is that there wasn’t football, or let us say more accurately professional football, for our indigenous people,” he said. “The barriers before were that we just didn’t know, or that sometimes mothers and fathers in the indigenous pueblo don’t have the mentality to put our children in soccer schools which occurs with other kids, let’s say. So, thank God for the lawyer [Chango] who began to dream big and thanks to him we are here to represent the indigenous people and community so that we can continue striving forward.”
Before taking his place in the dugout for an Under-16 match against visiting Guayaquil City, Sisa said he hopes the days of indigenous players being downtrodden, and bottom of the pile, are coming to an end. “Football is made for everyone and now players are being judged equally,” the 25-year-old keeper said. “The only thing one needs to do is demonstrate everything on the field, nothing more, nothing less. For me, football is life. I thank God that I have the support of my parents, my siblings, all of my family and also the community.”
Chango has made no secret of his desire to one day have an indigenous manager in charge of Mushuc Runa, and the intelligent and engaging Sisa could fit the bill in the future. Another club coach, Héctor Chacha, became the first indigenous man to take charge of a top-flight game after a short spell as caretaker manager before Cardetti was appointed in May.
This season the club participated in the 2019 Copa Sudamericana, the continent’s second-string competition behind the Copa Libertadores, for the first time in their history. They lost their only match on penalties to Unión Española of Chile after both legs finished 1-1.
Mushuc Runa’s participation captured the attention of the former Argentina international Juan Pablo Sorín who, after a couple of posts on social media identifying himself with indigenous causes and the club, found himself in Ecuador as Chango’s guest of honour. Sorín, who won 75 caps for Argentina, joined in indigenous dancing and then talked art, crafts and textiles with members of the community before being paraded on the pitch ahead of their clash with Emelec.
He then sat down for a traditional Ecuadorian dinner of cuy [guinea pig] and vegetables, wearing a poncho, at Chango’s house where the charismatic owner shared his vision. “I told him professional soccer for indigenous people has never made waves before,” Chango said. “Indigenous people only play within the community. I think that this club will work for them. If we continue to operate in the best ways, it will surely work.
“I feel sure that not only will it bring money in but we will also be able to bring out indigenous footballers to become professionals. The club is here to break mental paradigms, to value the professional activities of football that previously our parents, that our grandparents have looked down upon.”
It is half-time at the Estadio Bellavista in Ambato. The ground lies in the valley of the Central Cordillera, the highest of the Andean mountain ranges, but the peaks which hang behind the steep crescent-shaped stands behind the goals are shrouded in cloud. The Bellavista is home to Ambato’s big two rivals, Técnico Universitario and Macará, and is used by Mushuc Runa when they face Ecuador’s historic big clubs.
The Estadio Mushuc Runa Cooperativa de Ahorro y Crédito, located in Echaleche, 17 miles south-west of Ambato, opened in November 2018 but only has a capacity for 8000 spectators. Mushuc Runa currently have a small, loyal following of supporters, many of whom prefer to wear traditional dress to matches rather than football shirts.
The club have blueprints to expand their own stadium – which at 3200m above sea level is one of the highest in the world – to hold 25,000 when demand increases. Football schools for children during the summer months have proved popular with indigenous communities and Mushuc Runa’s supporter base is growing, especially among young families. “It is emotional to be a supporter of the first indigenous team in professional football,” says Andrés Usulle, an enthusiastic fan of the club. “We are all dreaming of what can be achieved.”
On the pitch at the Bellavista, Mushuc Runa are surprisingly 2-0 up against Barcelona – Ecuador’s biggest, best- supported and most successful club – thanks to well-taken goals from Jorge Luis Palacios and Adonis Stalin Preciado. The wall of yellow Barcelona fans who pack out one end are subdued at the break. The scoreline and perhaps a lack of sleep has left them dazed. The match is a Sunday lunchtime kick-off and many Barça fans will have begun the eight-hour journey by bus from the coastal city of Guayaquil in the early hours.
In the directors’ box Luis Chango is decidedly more chipper. His eyes are twinkling behind gold-rimmed glasses and sitting among friends and family he is a journalist’s dream; engaging, warm, affable, outspoken and with no subject off limits. At times Chango speaks with the partisanship of a revolutionary leader more than a football owner. It is impossible not to be impressed by his vision for indigenous football, and desire to upset not just the football establishment but the establishment.
“I hope the advancement of Mushuc Runa Sporting Club is a project of technological activation and social inclusion in the country and that can be a model for the world,” he said. “Mushuc Runa was created, envisioned to have two projects, a sports and a social project. In no other country have you seen a top-flight football team that has its own indigenous identity. The entrepreneurs, the first entrepreneurs in professional football, in the world.
“We do not have many indigenous players at this time but these are the steps we are talking about. I am sure that the Mushuc Runa framework can be implemented by indigenous people all over the world. I was born here in Ecuador, I am a visionary, the same creating I did with the Mushuc Runa cooperative.”
In conversations with Mushuc Runa’s players, staff and supporters Chango’s name is rarely spoken. Instead he is referred to as “the lawyer” or “the president”. He is revered as an almost otherworldly figure. The full-time whistle blows at the Estadio Bellavista and it is the shock result of the weekend: Mushuc Runa 5 Barcelona 1.
The club’s anthem plays out of the public address system as supporters trickle out of the Estadio Bellavista. Chango smiles with contentment, applauds and then his mind turns to the future once more. “I think I could die in peace, in calmness, the very moment that I see an indigenous player make it to the Ecuadorian national team,” he said. “This signifies that they speak Quechua, they wear the red poncho, white pants, white shirt. That they are not only a soccer player while maintaining their own cultural identity.”
With Chango in charge at Mushuc Runa it feels entirely possible.