Copa Peru is a very intense, nationwide tournament that lasts nearly a year. When I think of a “typical” Copa Peru team, the image that comes to mind is a group of men, late 20s to early 30s, who are small town celebrities because of their soccer talent. They don’t meet up to practice soccer, they just meet up for games, and then later to drink and gamble. They bet money on all their matches, so they’ll do whatever it takes to win, including fighting, cheating, and faking injuries. Copa Peru is a very hostile environment. Even so, our players grow up watching adults compete in this tournament. The entire community shows up to watch the games, cheering on their favorite teams, wearing their jerseys, making banners, and celebrating every goal. In small town soccer in Peru, when a team asks you to join their Copa Peru squad, that’s how you know you’re really good at soccer. When kids go to watch the games, they dream of being out on the field. That’s the most attainable aspiration of young soccer players in the villages where we work. Naturally, our team in Chazuta has been asking us for years when it will be their turn to represent Quechua FC in Copa Peru. Being familiar with the tournament, we weren’t particularly enthusiastic about sending them to participate. We constantly emphasize that we want them to dream BIGGER than Copa Peru, because that doesn’t have to be their peak! Even so, they have wanted this so much for so long. Last August, we saw some open doors aligning that would allow us to participate, so we stepped forward and started the paperwork. Manolo became the qualified, official Copa Peru coach. We hosted an academy wide try out, and chose our top 30 players. Then we hosted a pre-season camp, where we narrowed the roster to our top 23 players. Then we hosted a second pre-season camp, where we worked intensively on tactics, spiritual formation, and team building. After that, we gathered the team on several occasions to practice together, and continued to pour into them through time in the Word. We scheduled them some scrimmage matches against other nearby teams. And before we knew it, it was time for their debut in Copa Peru. We were concerned, to say the least. Our players are mostly ages 16-20. Our team lacks a lot of the experience that other teams boast about. Word on the street in Chazuta was that Quechua FC would be the weakest team in the tournament, an easy win for all the others. Plus, Copa Peru’s reputation for players making dirty tackles and fights starting on the field worried us that we would have a lot of players get hurt. I was praying for “at least one win (out of our 9 games) and NO major injuries.” But GOD loves to exceed our expectations.
If a soccer academy, or any other institution, is Christian, it should be BETTER. Not mediocre. Not right on par with secular organizations. BETTER. We hold ourselves to a higher standard of self discipline and integrity. We have the “inside scoop” on how life works (scripture) and the best counselor in existence (the Holy Spirit). We have the tools to excel in all areas of life. This includes on the soccer field. The community is taking note of a difference in lifestyle. Our players don’t get drunk after their matches, they don’t cuss on the field, and they don’t gamble. The majority abstain because they’re believers, and the rest abstain because it’s part of our team’s philosophy. We demonstrate discipline in preparation, self-control on the field, and encouragement instead of complaining. All of these things were absolutely key to our success. Several boys from the All Star team are the ones we reference who would most likely never set foot in church on their own accord. When it comes to evangelism, it’s not that they’ve never heard the Gospel, it’s that they’ve rejected it, or had bad experiences with believers, or don’t want to give up certain things to follow Jesus, or don’t understand the gravity of Jesus’s sacrifice. Working with individuals in that kind of spiritual state is a long process. It’s not a “one-and-done,” proclaim and move on type of situation. Working with the boys to prepare for Copa Peru was such a wonderful way to pour into them, using every conversation as a chance to nudge them closer to Jesus.
Quechua FC’s all star boys team had their Copa Peru debut in Chazuta this past Sunday. It was a truly historic moment. Several of our players got emotional as they walked out on the field in front of over 1,500 members of their community. The atmosphere was intimidating: our players knew the vast majority of the spectators were betting against us. We gathered the staff and the team to pray before the match. Moments later, the players took their places, and the starting whistle blew. Miguel Tuanama scored a beautiful goal on a free kick in the first 4 minutes of the match. Just two minutes later, Enjel Panaijo scored on a breakaway run. The atmosphere in the stadium shifted. Six minutes in, we were winning 2-0 against a team that usually places 2nd or 3rd in the tournament overall. And the goals kept coming. By halftime, it was 5-0. The other team’s spectators folded up their banners and started to leave the stadium. By the final whistle, it was 7-1. We can hardly contain our excitement about such an amazing win in our first match. The remarks we hear about Quechua FC are totally different now. People are taking our academies throughout San Martin much more seriously as a result of this win. It’s like our spectators and critics have collectively decided, “Oh, maybe that Christian group knows something about soccer after all.”