Soccer amid ruins: World Cup inspires unusual fields in Peru

LIMA, Peru (AP) Excitement for soccer has reached a fever pitch in Peru’s crowded capital, where a lack of open spaces has forced residents to play pickup games squeezed against Incan ruins or in pre-colonial cemeteries.

Inspiring this passion is Peru’s first qualification to play in a World Cup in 36 years. While the team lost its first match in this year’s Cup to Denmark, it faces France on Thursday and hopes are high again.

As many watch the matches from Russia on television sets, others are organizing impromptu games in this capital teeming with archaeological ruins peppered throughout an urban sprawl that experts say grew without proper planning for parks and sports fields.

Fields used in pickup games range from manicured grass to informal quadrangles etched into the dirt – many next to ancient cemeteries, religious complexes and the remnants of pre-colonial neighborhoods.

Community leader Valeriano Amaru stands on one such field as children practice their soccer moves next to a vast complex of crumbling adobe walls known as the Huaquerones ruin in Lima’s Ate-Vitarte district.

”A ton of us have played here,” Amaru said, recalling playing on such impromptu pitches for half of his 60 years.

Lima is home to the largest number of pre-colonial archaeological sites in the Americas, with more than 400 ”huacas,” meaning ”sacred places” or ”oracles” in the Quechua language. While their use for pickup soccer games has surged with World Cup fever, it is a longstanding practice since the sites often provide the only open spaces in poor, crowded neighborhoods.

Playing soccer in the ruins is technically not allowed, but the rules are applied flexibly since games often coincide with religious festivals, community celebrations – or now with the World Cup.

The Huaquerones site served as a military base in the government’s battle against insurgents in the 1980s and ”even the soldiers would play pickup games here,” Amaru said.

He said the World Cup has gotten children in Peru excited about soccer because ”they want to emulate the players on our national team,” many of whom come from poor neighborhoods.

Lima’s lack of open or public spaces is due to a lack of urban planning as its population exploded over a half century, growing fivefold to its current 9 million residents, experts say.

Neighborhoods sprang up around archaeological sites with few controls or restrictions.

”There was no planning for public space in many parts of Lima – a pattern only magnified in the outlying districts,” said Christopher Parisano, a graduate student in anthropology at City University of New York.

Lima residents typically have barely a third the urban green space recommended by the World Health Organization.

To many Peruvians, the ruins are part of their identity, something become woven into the fabric of their lives. They sit next to Peru’s largest football stadium and at the edge of the National Sports Village, where the country’s soccer team trains. The ruins sit next to university campuses and along major roads.

”Hopefully, they won’t take these fields away from us,” said Amaru. ”Who knows if a future star on our national team is playing soccer right here.”