MEXICO CITY (AP) — A team of Trique Indian boys swept through a youth basketball tournament despite their generally short stature and the fact that most play barefoot, earning acclaim in Mexico and abroad.
The team from the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca won all six of its games to become this year's champions at the International Festival of Mini-Basketball held recently in Argentina.
Other teams in the tournament dubbed the boys the "the barefoot mice from Mexico" because they are smaller than the other competitors, said Ernesto Merino, one of the team's coaches and a Trique Indian. He said they compensate for their short stature with "strength, speed and resistance."
Children are given tennis shoes when they join the team, but many don't wear the sneakers because they are accustomed to going barefoot, Merino said.
Merino said they grow up in large, poor families who struggle to find the money to buy clothes and shoes.
"For them it's normal to not have shoes, to walk barefoot," he said.
The team's performance won it a minute of applause Wednesday on the floor of Mexico's Chamber of Deputies, as well as accolades from Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and basketball experts.
"The victories of the Trique Indian team from Oaxaca's Academy of Indigenous Basketball make Mexicans proud," Pena Nieto said in a tweet.
Horacio Muratore, president of the International Basketball Federation-Americas, which organizes the annual tournament, said the boys were the best players.
"These boys deserved (the championship) more than anyone," Muratore wrote on the organization's website.
The boys' achievement has come at a particularly sensitive time for Mexico, which is agonizing over the poor performance of its once well-regarded national soccer team. The Tri, as it's known, has barely kept its hopes alive for qualifying for next year's World Cup in Brazil.
Merino said the boys who played at the tournament held in Cordoba, Argentina, are part of a basketball program designed to help poor children in Oaxaca, which is one of Mexico's poorest and most marginalized areas. The Oaxaca state government gives them tennis shoes, uniforms and a monthly $46 stipend.
"We see a basketball as an opportunity to grow in life," Merino said.
The program was started three years ago and it currently has 40 children enrolled, including five girls.
To enter the program, children must have good grades in school, speak their native tongue and help with chores at home.
"We want them to be prepared in life," Merino said.