June 13, 2018 / 5:16 PM / 4 months ago

Wider Image: In Peru, a makeshift soccer field unites shantytown community

LIMA (Reuters) - Nueva Union doesn’t have running water, a connection to the electrical grid or paved roads.

Stairs, used by Nueva Union shantytown residents to reach their homes, are seen in Villa Maria del Triunfo district of Lima, Peru, May 25, 2018. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

But the neighborhood has something that makes life in a Peruvian shantytown more bearable: a soccer field.

Nueva Union residents, mostly migrants from poor Peruvian provinces, carved a flat clearing for playing soccer into the dusty hillside where they settled in Lima some 15 years ago.

“This was a hill. It wasn’t like it was now. But with nothing but our determination, we started to dig. Why? To have something to distract us every Sunday,” says 40-year-old Nueva Union resident Edgar Champi.

The grassless soccer field - like scores of similar makeshift pitches across the country - is a testament to Peru’s love for the game as its team prepares to play in the World Cup for the first time since 1982.

“It’s pure happiness!” 54-year-old grandmother Luisa Alcantara says about the national team. “When they score a goal, even the tables shake.”

World Cup fever has injected fresh enthusiasm into the games played on the pitch in Nueva Union, which overlooks the capital of some 10 million people.

Kicking up clouds of dust and shouting nicknames at one another - “Noodle!” “Babyface!” “Shorty!” - Champi and other men hustle to make goals while women sell chicha, a traditional drink made from purple corn, to the crowds that have gathered to watch.

Like the Peruvian team, Nueva Union is an underdog - home to hard-working families struggling to build a better future for themselves with scant help from authorities.

Men play soccer at a makeshift soccer field in Nueva Union shantytown in Villa Maria del Triunfo district of Lima, Peru, April 8, 2018. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Lacking access to basic public services, Nueva Union residents must pay a premium for water sold from privately-owned trucks, which often suspend deliveries when roads become too slippery to climb in the winter. Electricity comes courtesy of hook-ups to a nearby neighborhood, which also charges higher rates.

Victor Antonio Cordoba, 32, the chief sports organizer in the neighborhood, says Nueva Union’s soccer field keeps residents healthy and happy. The star players on Peru’s team all come from low-income neighborhoods, he points out.

“Who knows, maybe future talent will come from here,” Cordoba says. “Without a field, we won’t know.”

From Monday to Saturday, when most of the neighborhood’s men are working, women play soccer or volleyball on the field. “We let the men play on Sundays,” Alcantara says with a laugh.

Martha Injusta, 49, a mother of two who cleans houses for a living, credits the space for helping her get in shape. “I used to be really plump,” she says.

The field is the closest thing to a town square in Nueva Union. It is where the community celebrates Carnival the traditional Andean way, by dancing around a gift-laden tree. It is a place to trade gossip with neighbors, and the designated safe spot to gather when an earthquake strikes.

As darkness gathers and a game wraps up, a voice on a loudspeaker set up next to the field reminds residents to help build a new staircase to make the steep climb to their homes easier.

There are other projects on the horizon: a retaining wall to protect against landslides, a community center for meetings, and cement and new nets for the soccer field.

“Of course we’re going to improve it,” 32-year-old mechanical technician Roger Loayza says about the soccer field. “This used to be a hill, but now we have something.”

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Slideshow (21 Images)

Reporting By Mariana Bazo and Mitra Taj, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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