Ο γύρος του κόσμου με ένα σομπρέρο

Football reaches the heights of the Andes

Two thousand eight hundred and eighty. That’s the number of meters that separate Iruya from sea level, up there in the Andes. Yet, it’s not just the altitude, a bit lower than the summit of Mount Olympus for comparison, that makes it different. La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, sits at 3,640 meters. Its uniqueness lies in its location; Iruya seems to hang from the mountain. Positioned 300 kilometers away from the capital of the Argentine province, aptly named Salta, to which it belongs, Iruya isn’t reachable directly from Salta. You have to cross over to the neighboring province of Jujuy. Specifically, if someone doesn’t have their own vehicle, they need to take the bus from Humahuaca, follow the road until they find the sign for Iruya, and endure a roughly four-hour journey on rough mountainous terrain for about 50 kilometers, after ascending to an altitude of 4,000 meters and then descending into the village.

The quaint village, home to approximately 1,800 residents (the total population scattered across various settlements reaches around 3,000), was officially founded in 1753. However, records indicate that inhabitants were present from the early 17th century. The local population visually resembles either Bolivians or Peruvians (considering Iruya is located just a stone’s throw from the Bolivian border and approximately 1,800 kilometers from Buenos Aires), as they are descendants of the Incas. Nevertheless, this doesn’t make them any less Argentine, as we’ll explore below.

Anyone who arrives there after a challenging journey full of potholes and dizzying turns, often on a bus so old it resembles the one from an old movie, will be rewarded. Even during the journey, if you’ve taken some Dramamine, the enchanting array of colors you encounter is magical. Iruya is nestled on the plateau of the Andes and looks like a floating island, surrounded by two rivers, numerous canyons, and cliffs. Upon reaching Iruya, you feel like you’ve traveled back in time. Even today, the residents largely continue to exchange products among themselves without using money. The roads are made of stone, while the houses are made of adobe, stone, or, in some cases, even straw. After all, Iruya, in the language of the indigenous people, means “abundance in straw.” The residents have blended the customs, traditions, and foods of the indigenous people with Spanish influences. You see them in their traditional attire, smiling and gracious toward adventurous tourists. It feels like you’re centuries back until, at some point, you spot the village’s football field, emblems of Salta’s teams painted on the walls, and children wearing Messi’s jersey from Barcelona or Argentina.

The field, as you can see, is located next to the cliff and is connected to the opposite bank by a bridge that terrifies you when you cross it. The river is dry during this period, but from January onwards, the rains begin, bringing water, mud, and rocks from the mountain. Often, the only road to the village floods, and Iruya remains cut off for weeks

Because no matter how far and remote you go, in the most isolated place in the world, you will still find someone playing football. And in Iruya, beyond the ceremonies, the market, the litanies, and all the local fairs and festivals, such as the Fiesta Patronal in honor of the Virgin of the Rosary with music from traditional instruments and local dances, football is a serious affair. Every neighborhood and settlement in the region has its own team, and the local tournament is no laughing matter. It is held with all possible formality and valuable prizes. Apart from the field (let’s call it regular), there is a second improvised one literally next to the cliff, and the only thing that characterizes it as a field is the two goals. This does not discourage the local teams, who gather (wearing their own jerseys) to settle their differences there. Stones change the ball’s trajectory, pebbles hurt knees and shins, but the players give their all for the jersey, for the joy. Sometimes they have to dribble the sheep crossing the field or even the dogs following them. Last August, the village’s main team, Club Deportivo Iruya, announced that it had reached an agreement with the mayor to build the field and finally install synthetic turf.

Of course, this will also help the other 11 local men’s teams competing in the championship and, naturally, those courageous women venturing from other areas. The championship is so important that there is both an Apertura and a Clausura. But football is not a privilege exclusive to men. Since 2012, there has been a local championship for women, with the participation of 8 teams. Among them is the team from the local school, where teachers, and even the headmistress, compete. Football and volleyball are the favorite sports for the women of the village.

The children celebrate the victory over Poland. Photo: Javier Corbalán

There were some mentions in the country’s media about Iruya, with La Nacion sending a reporter, while they watched a World Cup match for the first time at the Deportivo offices. It was the game between Argentina and Poland. They got a satellite decoder (as you can imagine there is a small problem both in telecommunications and in catching television), a projector, hung a “sheet,” and set up to celebrate the qualification. “We dream that Messi will visit us at some point,” said Silvia, coach of a women’s team in La Nacion, while celebrating. The sixty members of the club contribute a monthly subscription, and with some of that money, they were able to organize the screening. And while we may be talking about people disconnected from the rest of the world, as true Argentinians, they have the same superstitions. “We asked our protector to enlighten our players, and Messi to bring the cup,” added the coach. The club’s offices were filled with Argentine flags, local beer Salta, and carbonated soft drinks that help with altitude, as well as empanadas and barbecue with spicy sauce at halftime. Of course, the food was blessed: “Thank God for uniting us to watch the World Cup and for giving us this food.” Priorities are evident in prayer, first football and then the food. “Let’s see if Lewandowski could jump so high here in Iruya,” someone local said, obviously the local translation of the saying “could do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke.”

The journey in Iruya by the Argentine YouTuber.
Even if you don’t speak Spanish, the footage is impressive. Landscapes, the football field, the impressive cup, and the excitement during the World Cup final.

Rain caught up not only in Stoke but also in Iruya. The power was cut at the municipal school (where the match was also being projected), but not at the club’s offices. Power and telephone poles often attract lightning, and power outages are frequent, but in the end, everyone celebrated the qualification. People continued to follow their national team’s journey in the Qatar World Cup, reaching even the final, as shown in the beautiful video above. An Argentine YouTuber decided to undertake the difficult journey to watch the final with the locals.

Iruya, adorned in the colors of Argentina, people gathering in the municipal “lounge,” emotion during the national anthem, celebrations for Di Maria and Messi’s goals, disappointment at Mbappe’s goals, and in the end, relief and celebrations in the village streets. It’s proof of the power of football, its ability to reach everywhere, to be a global phenomenon that evokes the same emotions wherever you are. Iruya is also a world champion; the people enjoyed it, and although none of the Argentine players who won the title and visited their homelands came from the Andean plateau, this won’t prevent the winners of the Apertura and Clausura in Iruya from dreaming that someday they will play in a World Cup. Until then, they have the derby with the neighboring team.



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