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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 January 2007, 16:59 GMT
Ecuadorean footballer rebuilds village
By Sarah Sturdey
BBC News

Ulises De La Cruz
De la Cruz sends money home every week
A South American footballer playing in the English Premiership is spending his high salary not on fast cars and big houses, but on rebuilding an entire community where he grew up.

Ulises de la Cruz, who plays at Reading, was born in the Afro-Ecuadorean village of Piquiucho.

It is a three-hour drive north of Quito, the capital, nestled high in the Andes mountains, close to the Colombian border.

Ramshackle homes are perched on the hillside at the top of the Chota Valley beside the PanAmerican highway.

It is like stepping back into a little piece of Africa. Along with the vibrant culture, there is poverty.

Jobila Jorga lives in a two-room shack with her extended family of 12. She says Ulises "is the only one who cares".

"The government has done nothing to help us, we have been ignored by the authorities.

"He has provided a fresh water supply, it prevents disease spreading. We used to get fungus on our skin because of the dirty water."

Football success

The 32-year-old defender explains: "The 2002 World Cup, when Ecuador qualified for the first time, financed the 18km of water pipes and a treatment system.

"The 2006 World Cup in Germany, when we reached the second round, was important because the success means I can finance a new sports and community centre, now under construction."

A mother washes the dishes in the Chota Valley
Poverty is widespread in the Chota Valley
His priority for the 200 families is education. He has provided hundreds of books, a new roof and a playground.

Each day, 100 primary school children receive breakfast and lunch at school, courtesy of the Ulises De la Cruz Foundation.

Health, too, is a big concern.

Cramped living conditions means disease spreads easily.

He has built a medical centre and has been sending money to pay for a doctor, a dentist and a nurse at the clinic.

Dr Camillo Burbuano says Ulises has been doing "what the government should be doing".

De la Cruz is planning to build 40 new homes. The executive director of the foundation, Julio Cesar Larco, says building will start next month.

It's not just about football, the players have to study every morning before practising in the afternoon, it's about developing individuals to improve their chances of a better life
Jose Carcalen
Director at football academy

But the biggest project under way is the sports centre. It is being constructed against the dramatic backdrop of the Andes mountains.

His mother, Edita, keeps an eye on where the money is spent.

The defender calculates he sends about 10% of his salary each month back to Ecuador, sometimes several times a week.

There is also the big capital expenditure - like $200,000 for the sports and community centre.

A lack of recognition

Despite providing 11 players for the national football team in the past two World Cup finals, the community feels it is not getting any recognition or help.

De la Cruz's best friend is Agustin Delgado, a forward for Ecuador who used to play for Southampton. They grew up together.

Delgado set up a football academy in Juncal, next to Piquiucho six years ago. Seventeen graduates already play for two of the top teams in the country.

Schoolchildren in the Chota Valley
De la Cruz wants to create opportunities for children

The playing pitch is a large area of scrubland, just dirt and stones, either side of the vast Rio Chota road bridge with traffic thundering overhead.

Two hundred and fifty boys aged eight to 20 defy the conditions to play.

The technical director, Jose Carcalen, says: "The players are special because they face such hardship but work even harder to escape poverty. It's not just about football, the players have to study every morning before practising in the afternoon, it's about developing individuals to improve their chances of a better life."

Government action

The government realises the Chota Valley footballers - along with oil - are a real asset to the country.

The Ecuador team has reignited national pride in a country where around 70% of the population live in poverty - it is 80% in rural areas.

The tourism minister in the newly formed government, Maria Isabel Salvador, says Ulises and the other national team members "have been great for the country's self-esteem".

"For the past 20 years, Ecuador has been in a deep moral and political crisis. But the Afro-Ecuadoreans, since their arrival as slaves, have been neglected by the government and set apart from the rest of society. The government has not taken care of them."

Construction of De La Cruz project in the Chota Valley
Locals say de la Cruz is investing more than the government
De la Cruz is hoping that his generosity will encourage the government to invest in Piquiucho. There is a new President, Rafael Correa, whose election campaign focused on human rights and sweeping social welfare reforms.

While the country, including the Chota Valley, waits to see if he can deliver his promises, work goes on in Piquiucho.

In a few months' time, the sports centre will open. It's a place where the 700 villagers will be able to maintain their sense of community. The children will learn La Bomba - a dance unique to the Chota Valley Afro-Ecuadoreans.

It is living proof that, despite their circumstances, with a little help from its most famous son, Piquiucho's vibrant spirit and culture will be preserved.

But most importantly, de la Cruz says: "I want to create opportunities for the children to show that they can have a brighter future."

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