San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Soccer Outreach Helps Underprivileged Kids

Unbeknownst to most Costa Ricans, their country will be represented in Germany this June by two soccer teams. Now every red-blooded, gallo pintoeating and Imperial-swilling Tico knows that Costa Rica’s national soccer team – best known as La Sele, short for La Selección Nacional – will be opening the 2006 World Cup in Germany, in a match against the home team, putting this small country on the world’s center stage.

However, just two days before Costa Rica’s big game, another selection of Tico soccer players will be taking the field in Germany. And while players from La Sele generally bask in national celebrity, privilege and money, these players represent the other end of the social spectrum, hailing from one of Costa Rica’s poorest neighborhoods.

The team comprises six children ages 7-12, accompanied by an entourage that includes three teenagers and coordinators of Fútbol por La Vida (Soccer for Life), the social outreach program that has made it possible for the kids to go to Europe.

The players, and the teenagers along for support (and the experience) are all participants in Fútbol por la Vida, which seeks, through outreach soccer schools, to aid children living in high-risk situations and social exclusion (read: utter poverty) to develop personally and scholastically in ways that can help them better their circumstances.

The kids, who will spend June 5-16 Germany, will be playing in a parallel World Cup organized by German national team coach, Jürgen Klinsmen, called “Fair Play for Fair Life.” In the tournament, German schools will represent the different nations that participate in FIFA, the world governing body of soccer. The school of Lukenwalde, which was paired with Costa Rica through a raffle last year, qualified for the finals and contacts between the school and Fútbol por la Vida resulted in the inclusion of the six Costa Rican kids in the team for the finals, to be played June 8-9.

Not one of the nine Costa Rican youngsters headed to Germany has been on a plane, let alone traveled to another country. Marjorie Gamboa, 12, bit her bottom lip when asked what scared her most about going to Germany.

“The airplane,” she said without hesitation. “There could be a problem and it could

crash, or something.”

Gabriela Mora, 18, describes a country she clearly knows little about with small pieces of knowledge: Germans are bigger people and dress differently, in suit jackets, ties and dress pants. They hardly ever eat rice and beans, preferring bread and spaghetti. They listen to classical music.

Gabriela, Marjorie and the other kids going to Germany all come from Tejarcillos, a neighborhood of corrugated tin shacks and a government housing project in the oncerural, now-suburban town of Alajuelita, at San José’s southern edge.

Fútbol por la Vida, a nonprofit organization that runs programs in five communities encompassing 600 underprivileged youths, began its work two years ago in Tejarcillos.

Every Tuesday and Friday 40-80 kids, ranging from 12-18, cross the crumbling hill that separates Tejarcillos from the rest of Alajuelita to get to the municipal soccer field where they practice.

In a drive through their community, coach Christopher Díaz pointed out the only two soccer fields in Tejarcillos, and it’s easy to see why the kids make the hike. At the edge of the first field, a dog roots through a pile of foul-smelling garbage bags. The field itself is an irregularly shaped patch of dirt.

One goal is made of metal tubing; the other is a large branch tied to bamboo with an old red sweater and scraps of plastic and twine.

The other field has become a community dump after several large piles of dirt and rubble appeared one day, making it totally unusable. As Díaz pulls up, three children conspiratorially hunch over a pile of trash, glancing suspiciously over their shoulders.

“These kids live in very high-risk areas,” said a spokeswoman for Fútbol por la Vida, Catalina Hernández. “The program goal is to contribute to their integral development, as people, as social beings who grow.”

Fútbol por la Vida attempts to accomplish this not-so-small task using soccer both to hook the kids into the program and to create a space of trust in which to work with them.

In addition to the very necessary soccer coaches, Fútbol por la Vida also employs psychologists and social workers, who attend the practices and organize workshops and activities on topics such as sexuality, health, drug addiction and abuse.

“The social workers and psychologists are always in contact with the kids, keeping up with them, and if (the kids) have a problem they can talk to them,”Hernández explained.

At a Tuesday practice, social worker Ana Cristina Araya, 24, watches through a chainlink fence as a mix of young boys and older girls run a scrimmage. With mostly matching vests, the kids kick at the ball with cleats, sneakers, clunky school shoes and bare feet.

A small boy comes stomping off the field, glowering out from under the T-shirt he holds on his head with one hand. One of the other players – an aggressive, older girl – angered him and he decided to stop playing.

“You can’t just give up, because these types of things happen in life,”Araya consoles. The boy shrugs off the advice, but decides to sit out the rest of the game at Araya’s side.

“Generally these kids are surrounded by many social problems, such as alcoholism, violence and drug abuse that put the children at risk,” the social worker says. “So the idea of the soccer schools is to give them a space where they acquire social values that allow them to generate abilities to confront these types of contexts.”

For Araya, the opportunity for a few of these kids – selected not for their soccer abilities but rather for their contributions and perseverance – to travel is something that they would never have otherwise.

“For their emotional and integral development it is a very valuable opportunity,” Araya says.“They see other types of alternatives possible.

They are very accustomed to this way of life and to ‘I’m not going to leave.’

The fact that they are traveling to a developed country, a country that offers so many opportunities, allows them to see that even within the context they live, they can still fight for other opportunities that do exist.”

The kids’ trip to Germany is possible thanks to the German cooperation agency Bread for the World, which has been the most important, consistent donor to the Fútbol por la Vida program, said Hernández, However, the program is seeking more funding in hopes of opening soccer schools in communities that have heard about the program and requested a school of their own.

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