Climate change impacts every aspect of human life – football included. Certain developments make us reflect more closely on the relationship between football and energy, like seeing footballers step into their private jets to attend games, or seeing the nth traditional team get acquired by business concerns with ties to fossil fuels. In order to explore this relationship between energy and football, this time we look to the past, and to one of the most symbiotic relationships between the fossil industry and football: the story of the Idol of the People, SD Aucas from Quito.
This article is part of a special series looking at the historical relationship between football and fossil fueled industry.
In the late 19th century, prospecting for oil and other fuels began in the continent, mostly performed by local entrepreneurs and state actors. The 20th century brought technological innovations and foreign investment, two developments that greatly accelerated this process. Oil giants like Standard Oil, Shell, and Atlantic Refining started to compete for licences in this new market. Ecuador was no exception to this trend, and Shell began operating in the East of this country in the 30s. Shell workers found significant opposition to their operation from indigenous groups, who mounted (occasionally lethal) armed attacks against them as a way of protecting their land. These indigenous groups were somewhat unflatteringly known to the oil workers as the auca or awqa, (quechua for enemy, savage or warrior) even if their actual name was the Huaroani.
Oil man with a dream
The Dutch Marius Hulswit operated as manager for industrial relations at the Royal Dutch Shell in Ecuador in the mid 40s. Apart from prospecting new fields and growing the operations of the English-Dutch conglomerate, Hulswit had another aspiration: to found the most successful football team in the whole of Ecuador. He found many enthusiastic coworkers from Shell eager to join him in this endeavour. An engineer, a doctor, and several other Shell employees started training as players for Aucas and helping Hulswit build up the team. With generous financial support from the company they set out to sign the best footballers in the region, and poached the star players from regional team Titán. New players would automatically become Shell employees and enjoy similar salaries and benefits as those employees working in production – something unattainable for opposition teams.
After extensive negotiations and a few exhibition matches, the team was to be registered officially in the Football Association of Pichincha in February 1945. The only thing missing: a name. Drawing inspiration from the early days of Shell in Ecuador and how they overcame the indigenous opposition to their operations, Mr. Illingworth Quevedo, a high executive from Shell, proposed Aucas as the name for the new club. Papá Aucas’ golden age began immediately, winning the provincial championships of 1945 through 1949, and representing the province in interprovincial competitions. And how they won! Aucas went unbeaten in its first three years of existence. Key to their success according to some pundits? Both footballing genius and the organisational and financial support from their parent company.
The ‘Idol of the People’ today
Aucas had made an enormous impact on Ecuadorian football in the first decades following its foundation. This trend sadly did not continue after football turned professional in Ecuador. In the second half of the 20th century, the Idol was often overshadowed by other big Ecuadorian teams. In 1962, Aucas won the provincial championship. After that year, it languished into a few decades of crisis – getting relegated and struggling to come back to the first division. The 90s were a decade of relative stability for the club, and culminated in a few good years in the early noughties, crowned by the signing of a few international stars like René Higuita and Agustín Delgado. Sadly, by the end of that decade Aucas ended in a deep economic and institutional crisis that saw them relegated to the Ecuadorian third league.
To the delight of its fans, Aucas finally redeemed itself in the 2020s. With the exception of a brief stint in the second tier, it has once again become a staple of the Ecuadorian Pro League. In 2022, they won its very first national championship, and even made its debut on the international stage, beating reigning champions Flamenco in the Copa Libertadores. Over its long and often difficult history, Aucas became a club renowned for enduring hardship with grace and for its remarkably loyal fanbase – perhaps even more than for its historical links to oil giant Shell.
The story of Aucas had a violent beginning, with the Huaroani people losing out to the industrial progress spearheaded by Shell. Today, Shell is not the first thing people think of when Aucas is mentioned. How can an institution like a football team move on from violent beginnings and acquire a new identity?
In the history of the late 19th and 20th century, football has often been closely related to industrial activity. Nowadays, there is a sector of society that strongly opposes the fossil fuel industry because of their share of responsibility for climate change. To what extent is it different to support a club with fossil ties than to support a club with ties to other industries, like for example West Ham or Schalke?