The language of soccer games is ripe with phrases, metaphors and clichés that reflect modern life: a coach who parks the bus, a midfielder who shoots rockets, a striker who scores with a bicycle kick. But at 11,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, the vocabulary changes. That is where Luis Soto, who hosts a daily sports program on Radio Inti Raymi, is narrating Peru’s first appearance at the World Cup since 1982 in his native language, Quechua.
Soto captures the action on the field with references closer to his home in Cusco, Peru. When a midfielder controls the ball and neutralizes attacks, he is hoeing the land. When a player kicks the ball with power, he has eaten a lot of quinoa. And when Edison Flores, one of Peru’s stars, scored an important goal against Ecuador to help the team qualify for the World Cup in Russia, he built roads where there were only narrow walking paths.
Before that, Soto had to clear a basic hurdle: finding a term for “soccer ball.” Quechua was developed by the ancient Incas, and the only word for ball that he knew was used in Cusco referred to a sphere made from pieces of llama neck leather and used in religious ceremonies.
“The term didn’t exist,” he said, “so we had to adapt.”
After canvassing local players, Soto settled on “qara q’ompo,” which means leather ball, or sphere. It is one of about 500 terms and phrases he has compiled over the last decade into what is probably the world’s only Quechua soccer dictionary. He shares it freely with anyone who is interested.
Quechua is an oral tradition that is written in Spanish transliteration and varies in different parts of the country and the continent. Soto, like most Quechua speakers, learned the language at home, not in a formal school setting. His soccer dictionary reflects only his experience and regional interpretation. Language experts from other parts of Peru, for example, say the words “ruyruku” and “haytana” have also been used to refer to a soccer ball.
To prepare for the World Cup, Soto, 44, spent months practicing with videos of games to hone his speed and tone, knowing that his listeners — hundreds of thousands of them — would be experiencing an important moment for Peru on the world stage in their native language for the first time.
Soto was in the station’s studio in Cusco with his fellow announcers Saturnino Pulla and Percy Chile on Saturday when Peru debuted at the 2018 tournament with a 1-0 loss to Denmark. He told his listeners the defeat was like feeling an emptiness in the clouds.
But almost immediately he began looking forward to Peru’s second game, against France on Thursday, when he might be able to announce his first “Gooooooool,” which has the same meaning in Quechua and Spanish.
Soto is celebrating Quechua as Peru is taking steps to revitalize this historically marginalized language and trying to grapple with entrenched racism against indigenous people, who make up about a fifth of the nation’s population.
In 2016, the first all-Quechua daily news broadcast was shown on public television, and the government recruited two players from the diverse lineup of Peru’s World Cup team, Flores and Renato Tapia, to spread a message of tolerance through a national ad campaign.
During the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand last year, when Peru claimed its place in the World Cup, the Ministry of Culture premiered TV ads and social media posts with Flores and Tapia declaring: “I am Afro-Peruvian, indigenous, mestizo. Peruvian like you!”
Flores said he wanted to participate because discrimination remains a serious problem in Peru, both on and off the field. In the last five years, at least 10 racist incidents have been recorded in the Peruvian soccer league, with fans yelling epithets at players during games, according to news media reports.
“In Peru there is more discrimination because of class, but many times it is classism directed at indigenous people,” Flores said in a telephone interview. “The upper classes think that they can say and do whatever they want, but that needs to change.”
Poverty haunts indigenous communities in Peru, a nation of 32 million where malnutrition in children and illiteracy rates are higher among Quechua speakers, according to the World Bank.
Soto said his effort is part of a fight against shame and bigotry that has led some parents to stop teaching the language to their children. The 2007 census, the most recent one available, found 3.4 million people — about 11 percent of the population — speaking Quechua as their first language. The Ministry of Culture has said the percentage of the Quechua-speaking Peruvian population will probably decline when the results of the 2017 census are published.
“Globalization has generated a kind of fear, or hatred even, of the Quechua language,” he said. “Young people who migrated from the communities to the cities were marginalized by speaking Quechua, or by wearing typical dress. Progress meant they ended up losing all love and passion for their original language.”
When Soto started broadcasting 15 years ago, he was a pioneer. Sometimes television programs would invite Quechua speakers, he said, usually only to say a few words to introduce a segment on folk music or a festival.
Back then, Soto read the news on the radio. After Cusco’s local team, Cienciano, beat River Plate of Argentina to win the Copa Sudamericana in 2003, he wondered about the possibility of broadcasting soccer matches in Quechua.
Soto, who broadcast his first national-team game in 2004, compiled his glossary of soccer terms primarily by asking local people on soccer fields how they described what they were doing. Then he practiced pronouncing and incorporating them into the fast-paced action of a game.
The most difficult challenge, he said, had been to interpret what he sees on the field and connect it to Andean culture, so his audience can relate to the emotion he is trying to convey.
“Our worldview has always been linked to the mountains, the rivers, birdsong, flowers and fauna,” Soto said, “and so when we broadcast soccer, we just add in that special ingredient.”
When the ball soars far from the goal or a player kicks it into the bleachers, Soto says the ball is in hanaq pacha, or the world above — one of the three realms of the universe, according to Inca mythology.
When the team performs well, Soto talks about traditional collective tasks done in indigenous communities, like putting a roof on a neighbor’s new house.
But reviving Quechua has not been easy.
“When I started, everyone made fun of me,” Soto said. “They told me that I was not going to make money because Quechua people are poor and they won’t buy advertising. But I am not doing it for money. I do it so people can feel represented.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.