Unique to Ecuador, ecuavóley has become the people’s sport, attracting crowds to local parks
By Stephen Vargha
There is a sport in Ecuador that you will not see being played anywhere else in the world: Ecuavóley.
Originally considered a sport for the lower class or “lazy people,” ecuavóley has greatly expanded since then as you can see it being played throughout the country. It is a bit different than voleibol (volleyball) as the nets are higher. And most of the time, a soccer ball is used.
“I started playing 25 years ago when I was 15 years old,” said Boris Cuesta. “We were playing it at my high school, Colegio Bilingue Interamericano.” The native Cuencano said that everyone at his school learned to play the game.
The 40-year-old may have started playing ecuavóley at a relatively late age. “Everyone starts playing when they are young. They play in high school and many other places,” said Cuesta. “Families practice together and with friends.”
In Ecuador, it’s the “People’s Sport.” Today, players are from all social classes, be it truck drivers, farm workers, construction workers, or people who work in offices. Everyone plays.
You will see taxi drivers gather between shifts around courts. Prior to the pandemic, it was not unusual to see numerous taxis and cars parked in front of a very popular makeshift ecuavóley court on Paseo Río Yanuncay at Tres Puentes.
A search of Facebook shows at least three large groups for the sport: Ecuavóley el Rey de los Deportes (with 36K members), Ecuavóley Cuenca – Ecuador (with 7.7K members), and Indor y Ecuavóley (with 4.8K members).
They say ecuavóley enjoys equal or greater popularity than fútbol (soccer) in Ecuador. “Fútbol is number-one in Ecuador with ecuavóley number-two,” said Cuesta. “But! In Cuenca, ecuavóley is a very strong number-two.”
In many parks in Cuenca, you will see ecuavóley being played. No matter where you go in the city, you will see ecuavóley nets strung up. Many people play after work for fun and stress relief. And definitely on weekends.
That includes Parque La Isla, next to the Rio Yanuncay on Cuenca’s southside. The small neighborhood park is the scene of a weekly competition. “Four years ago, we started communicating about ecuavóley via our WhatsApp group,” said Cuesta. “I know this place and came up with the idea.”
Cuesta’s familiarity goes back to his childhood when his father lived near the Tarqui River, in the La Isla barrio. It is why he chose the tree-shaded park for games on Saturday.
At the Saturday gatherings, the ages of the players range from David (16) and Luis (21) to Cuesta and his buddies from high school. The two youngest players are sons of Cuesta’s former classmates.
“We start playing at 8:30 in the morning and have games until noon or 1:00 in the afternoon,” said Cuesta. “By the end of the matches, I am exhausted.”
Their games are popular with the residents of the area. It is not unusual to see people sitting on park benches, taking in the action. On one Saturday morning, two policemen parked their motorcycle next to the court to watch. They stayed a rather long time.
There is no definitive time period as to when ecuavóley began due to a lack of documentation. Some say it was the late-19th century. Others say the game has its origins in 1930, in Azuay, Loja, and Imbabura provinces. There are photographs from 1930 that show volleyball practices in Cuenca and Loja.
In Imbabura, ecuavóley was practiced by the indigenous and mestizo people once the daily activities were completed. Their first ecuavóley court was located in front of Hacienda Yacucalle, in Ibarra.
As a result of a military exchange between Chile and Ecuador, Chilean soldiers visiting Quito in 1945 organized volleyball matches, which were not widely used by the local militia. Ecuadorian soldiers began to participate, but they could not always find twelve players to play. It was decided that there would be three players on each side instead of the usual six.
The first registered ecuavóley championships were held in 1950, in Quito and Otavalo, as they were the first cantons of Ecuador to form official teams. Ecuador’s first national championship was held in Latacunga (just south of Quito) in 1957. Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Guayas, Loja, Pichincha, and Tungurahua provinces competed.
In 1971, Carlos Castañeda created FEDENALIGAS (Federación Nacional de Ligas) by merging the Federation of Neighborhood Leagues of the Canton of Quito and the Federation of Rookie Leagues of Guayas. Don Carlos, as he was known, was one of the main players in the neighborhood leagues. That same year, the Association of Clubs and Neighborhood Leagues of Imbabura was also founded.
It was only 43 years ago that the name of ecuavóley was given. It was met with approval of the majority of players and fans, who recognize the national identity in the name because it combines Ecuador with volleyball.
Jorge Carrera Chinga attributed the new name to his father, who was president of the game known by ecuavóley in the Sierra. Prior to 1979, the sport had several different names from the various regions of the country: volleyball, volleyball of three, and Creole volleyball.
By 1990, there were more than 200 neighborhood leagues in Ecuador, with half of them located in Quito. Among all the leagues, there were about 8,000 teams. This demand required more organization for the sport.
Today, the sport is played by more people, even non-Ecuadorians, thanks to the migration of people from Ecuador to countries like the United States or Spain. That includes Bushwick, a working-class neighborhood in the northern part of Brooklyn, New York. It is not unusual to see crowds of people gather around the red-top courts at Maria Hernández Park every day to enjoy ecuavóley.
Despite its popularity, ecuavóley is not yet accepted by the Ecuadorian Olympic Committee. This is despite volleyball being introduced to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and beach volleyball added at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Its informality has not allowed ecuavóley to become a federated sport, so its practice continues to be purely recreational.
There are various efforts to promote ecuavóley to a federated sport. One of them is the National Technical Commission of Ecuavóley (COTENAE). Its ultimate goal is getting ecuavóley into the Olympic Games.
COTENAE feels it should already be considered an international sport due to its play in other countries. Others associated with ecuavóley are not so sure as it is basically Ecuadorians playing the game in other countries.
For those at Cuenca’s parks, it really does not matter if it gets the international recognition. Ecuavóley is already part of their lives.
You will find the rules to be similar to international volleyball:
- Each court team is made up of three players: the setter (Spanish: colocador), the server (servidor), and the flyer (volador). The flyer plays the back area (behind the setter and server) and acts as the defender of the team by running from side to side and recovering the ball for the server. The server then pops the ball up into the air so the setter can come in and spike it over.
- Teams don’t wear uniforms or even matching t-shirts. A mishmash of knock-off
sportswear is a badge of honor.
- The net must be high and narrow. It is placed at a height of 2.85 meters / 9.35 feet for players over 1.90 meters / 6-feet 3-inches.
- The court has dimensions of 18 meters / 59 feet by 9 meters / 29.5 feet. A court is painted on the concrete at Parque La Isla.
- It can be played with a soccer ball (and usually is).
- There is a maximum of three hits per side.
- Here’s a big difference between international volleyball and ecuavóley: Holding the ball in the hand for more than one second (hitting and pushing the ball) is allowed.
- Touching the net with your hand is not allowed. You cannot step on or cross the line located under the net.
- Despite a soccer ball being used for most games, one is not allowed to kick the ball. Only hands, fists or forearms may contact the ball.
- “Bola” (“Ball”) must be shouted before serving, and only one hand can be used.
- The ball cannot touch the net when serving, otherwise it will be a change for the opposing team.
- A point is scored when the ball touches the ground in your opposing team’s side of the court.
- Games are made up of two sets each of 15 points.
Photos by Stephen Vargha