Pioneer risked hunger to establish rugby league in Chile

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

He will be among the touring party to The University of North Florida, Jacksonville, for the Americas Championship on 13th and 17th November 2018, which doubles as a qualifier for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup in England, where the opening fixtures will see Chile take on hosts USA, the winners facing either Jamaica or Canada.

“When rugby league was born in Chile, I did not have a car and was travelling four to five hours by bus per day to reach all the different towns we ran development clinics in,” pioneer Badilla said. “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 would be returning from my last clinic at 11pm. I can remember some days the hunger would be too much and I’d have to ask the same children I was teaching for a snack.”

Badilla continued: “That was very humbling and embarrassing, but we were committed for Chile to become a power in this sport and for more Latinos to practice sport in general.”

By chance, around the same time he reunited with an old acquaintance, Guillermo Artiaga and together they vowed to commit themselves to establish something that was welcoming to people of all backgrounds and financial capabilities.

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

The earliest clubs in Chile were located around the city of Los Angeles with a population 200,000 and it was in the smaller townships such as Nacimiento, Yumbel, Cabrero, Monte Aguila, Yungay, Collipulli, Concepción, Renaico and Angol that it really gained traction.

While the Bio Bio region is still a stronghold, teams are now spread 2,000km across the country and the more northern centres near Antofagasta are current regional champions.

“The sport has allowed me to get to know many other places outside my immediate neighbourhood, to meet so many great people who are open to learning something new and allowed an exchange of cultures that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

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.