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David's Blog: Futbol Para La Vida, Soccer for Life

There were sixteen friends, teenagers together in a shanty-town on the edge of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.  Life was hard; the country had never fully recovered from the destruction of Hurricane Mitch, unemployment was high and things grew more difficult as the gangs and the drug traffickers moved in.  Slowly the teenagers joined the gang, and, ten years later, fourteen of them were dead – killed in the violence of this city.  One of the two survivors is in jail – I met the other one, the only one of the group still alive and not in jail, a young man named Alan, this afternoon.

David Morley, President and CEO of UNICEF Canada, and Meg French, Director of International Programs at UNICEF Canada, pose for a photo with children in Honduras.

Alan has finished university and has a job.  I asked him how he was able to survive, to make it out alive from his violent past.  He gave me two reasons.  “My family.  I had both my parents, and they made sure I studied.  The other was this program,” he waved his hand out to the rocky dusty soccer pitch beside us, which was filled with children playing soccer.  “I loved playing soccer, and the rules of this game were simple – if I didn’t go to school, I wouldn’t get to play.”

Children in the futbol para la vida (Soccer for Life) program in Honduras.

The program is Soccer for Life.  It was started more than a decade ago by Hector Zelaya, one of the greatest Honduran soccer players ever, famous for scoring the first goal ever by a Honduran in the World Cup.  Hector is a quiet-spoken man, quick to smile and happy to play with the kids, although seven knee operations cut short his professional career.  Dismayed at the level of violence in and around Tegucigalpa (where the adolescent murder rate is the equivalent of three teenagers in every high school in Toronto getting murdered every year), Hector created Soccer for Life. 

With the help of the local government and UNICEF, the program has grown across the city.  Hundreds of community volunteers are a key to the success of Soccer for Life.  They run the games, organize the training, and invite other volunteers and community organizers to talk with the children and teenagers in the program about subjects ranging from HIV/AIDS to children’s rights.  And all you have to do to qualify for the program is go to school.

A child participating in the program takes a penalty shot before a crowd of onlookers.

Correa, another former soccer player, blows his whistle and keeps the children active.  “A soccer ball is the honey that attracts the kids,” he says.  “Then we help teach them life skills they will keep using long after they’ve stopped playing soccer.”  A mother, with three small children clustering around her, is more blunt.  “I like this program.  My kids go here because I don’t want them to end up dead on the street.”

At a lunch meeting with some CIDA officials we discussed the problems facing Honduras.  The country still suffers the after effects of Hurricane Mitch more than a decade ago and the economic sanctions of 2009.  The “fiscal cliff” here is massive – more than half the civil servants haven’t been paid since November.  The education system is in such disarray that over the past ten years, three years’ worth of teaching days have been lost to strikes.  The country is on the drug-trafficking route from South America to the USA.  Three out of ten children suffer from stunting, probably because one out of every four children lives on less than $1.25 a day.  Discussing these problems feels overwhelming – where in the world do you start to try and make things better?

Well, a soccer ball, a dusty, rocky pitch, a committed soccer star and a group of kids is as good a place as any, I guess – and it certainly seems to be bearing fruit.