Chilean Rugby League director recalls humble beginnings

Futbol a 13 Chile director, Ronald Soto Badilla, has revealed that he risked hunger to spread the sport in his South American nation, the first to be included in World Cup qualifiers next week.

He will be among Chile’s touring party to Jacksonville, North Florida, for the Americas Championship (13th and 17th November) which doubles as a qualifier for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup in England. The  opening fixtures will see Chile take on hosts USA, with the winners facing either Jamaica or Canada.

“When rugby league was born in Chile, I did not have a car. I was travelling four to five hours a day by bus, to reach all the different towns we ran development clinics in,” said pioneer Badilla. “Our budget was very low and, once I started to purchase equipment like balls, marker cones and t-shirts for the participants, it forced some difficult decisions.

“There were times when, to afford the bus and the equipment, I did not eat, and I remember some days when, returning from my last clinic at 11pm, my hunger would be so great I would have to beg the children I was teaching for a snack.

“That was a very humbling and embarrassing experience, but we were committed to Chile becoming a power in this sport and to more Latinos practicing the sport in general.”

By chance, around the same time, Badilla met up with an old acquaintance, Guillermo Artiaga, and they vowed that together they would establish something that would welcome people of all backgrounds and financial capabilities.

“For us it did not matter if players had a lot of money, or very little,” remembered Badilla. “It was very important to us, to be inclusive. We felt that rugby league, aside from being a fast, dynamic, entertaining sport, could help to bring local communities together.”

The earliest clubs in Chile were located around the city of Los Angeles (population 200,000). It was in the smaller townships such as Nacimiento, Yumbel, Cabrero, Monte Aguila, Yungay, Collipulli, Concepción, Renaico and Angol that the game really gained traction.  But now, while the Bio Bio region is still a stronghold, there are teams spread 2,000km across the country, and the more northern centres, near Antofagasta,are current regional champions.

“This sport has made it possible for me to know many places outside my immediate neighbourhood, to meet many great people open to learning something new, and to experience an exchange of cultures that would not, otherwise have been possible.”

The Chilenos will send five players from their domestic competition to participate in the double-headers: Ferec Cabezas, Piero Diaz, Taylor Salas, Zecil Yao and Francisco Leiva.