News / Americas

Youth Program Enjoys World Cup Boost

Youths participating in the
Youths participating in the "A Ganar" (To Win) program celebrate after scoring a goal during soccer training in Ciudad Juarez June 19, 2014.

The story of how soccer changed the course of one young man’s life and many others has heartened Washington diplomats, demonstrating how sports values can go beyond the scoreboard to bring social change.

The 2014 World Cup just ended with Germany claiming its fourth title. But embassies in Washington are using the tournament’s immense popularity to boost a program whose goal is to redirect high-risk Latin American youths to productive lives through soccer.

The “Soccer Saved My Life” campaign is aimed at showing how the principles of the sport known as " the beautiful game" can teach young women and men discipline and teamwork.  More than 13,000 youths have participated in the program, which gradually takes them from the field to the classroom to the job site.

“We’ve taken a lot of kids off the streets and out of gangs, or they’ve stopped using drugs through this program,” said Michelle Nicholson, communications director for its parent organization, Partners of the Americas.

The program is called A Ganar which means "to win" or "to earn" in Spanish. It operates in 18 countries and is now making a new push to expand its Washington embassy support for the program.

A success story from Honduras

Tania Casco normally deals with bureaucratic matters as a First Secretary at the Embassy of Honduras in Washington. She said her “heart flooded when I heard the words” of the newfound success of a young man from her country, Guido Rivera, whom she met a recent fundraiser for the program.

Rivera was in Washington, speaking English confidently to a crowd, despite a lack of formal education.

“He said, ‘I dropped out of school and I had two options: join a drug cartel gang, or go and steal. Now, he’s on a better path,” Casco said. “It was amazing.”

Rivera now has more than a dozen young people under his tutelage, according to Casco. He thinks several of them can become leaders.

 “Guido, he’s the perfect experience in saying, hey, his life has changed completely,” Casco said.

Without the program, “those kids are not involved in school or are doing anything,” she added.

“They have two roads to go through. And you know, we have a lot of criminal gangs,” she said. “This program creates leadership…In Honduras, sports is something that unifies all the Honduran community.”

The Honduran embassy held an event to benefit the Soccer Changed My Life campaign featuring the Honduran national team when it was in Washington for a pre-World Cup exhibition games. Some of the players spoke about how soccer was their escape from what would have been a life of criminal violence.

The program’s founding is attributed to an outgrowth of an idea by Brazilian and worldwide soccer legend Pele, who first raised it to the Inter-American Development bank. The Brazilian embassy in Washington maintains contact with the soccer program, which noted it has recruits playing virtually in the shadows of a World Cup stadium in Brazil.

A personal connection

The Mexican embassy is also close to the program. Like Honduras, Mexico sent over embassy staff members last week’s fundraiser at a downtown Washington restaurant.

But for Vanessa Calva, deputy press secretary for the embassy, the connection was personal as well as professional. The Mexican diplomat played soccer in high school – and still plays recreationally in the American capital.

“The discipline, commitment, teamwork, training and fun makes me appreciate a program like that more,” noted Calva.

“Sports had a huge impact on me,” she noted. “Feeling that you’re playing for something 'bigger' than you - your team, your school or your country - and yet you have a great sense of belonging as well,” can make a real difference, she said.

With the life-changing soccer program, Mexico’s Calva cited “positive results in our youth workforce development and skills that will enable them to seek out job opportunities that better their lives.”

The embassy is talking about “possibly how can we expand our collaboration with Partners. The love of soccer and our youth brought us together.”

Creating hope

Partners of the Americas president Stephen Vetter cites the respect the organization’s work earns in dangerous places like Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, which has suffered greatly from drug trade violence.

“This is a war zone,” Vetter said. “The fact that soccer is the medium by which you are working in this very dangerous [area] and no one’s been injured or killed or kidnapped or ransomed, is really quite remarkable.”

Soccer can create hope in dangerous or impoverished places where youths “really haven’t had access to anyone who’s who willing to understand or support them,” Vetter said. Yet, it is also a rallying point in diplomatic Washington.

 “It’s absolutely a bonding thing with the embassies,” he observed. “You can go in and start talking about soccer with anyone in the Latin American diplomatic corps. It helps establish your credentials.”

In fact, with several women staffers who have played top-level American college soccer, Partners plans to give its Soccer Saved My Life briefings to diplomats not only in the office, but on the field.

“Our staff now has organized a soccer team, so we can start playing the embassies,” Vetter said. “We hope that people will, after the World Cup, continue to value and appreciate the power that soccer has in our lives.”

Honduran diplomat Casco has seen firsthand how the soccer program provides the necessary tools to create young leaders.

“When you’re involved in a sport, you’re working on a team. What is your focus?” she asked. “You have to keep the ball in front, towards the goal.”


Lee Michael Katz

Lee Michael Katz is an award-winning journalist, analyst and author.

Currently a prominent freelance writer, Katz is the former Senior Diplomatic Correspondent of USA Today and International Editor of UPI News Service.He has reported from more than 60 countries.  Katz’s expertise includes foreign policy and diplomacy, peace talks, national security, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction policy, foundation grants, business and financial topics.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs

More Americas News

Tropical Storm Erika Dissipates; 21 Dead

Storm flags over Cuba, could regain strength over Gulf of Mexico; death toll in Dominica, Haiti is 21
More

Video Cubans Embrace New Internet Connectivity Options

Government has approved use of prepaid cards for web access; some foresee construction of better infrastructure, with towers, fiber-optic cables
More

Brazil's Rousseff Faces Growing Impeachment Threat

President’s woes increasing as she now also faces angry rival who controls the possibility of impeachment proceedings against her
More

Cancer, Transplant Patients Rail at Drug Shortages in Venezuela

Currency controls, slumping production and smuggling have caused acute shortages of medical supplies in the socialist-led nation
More

Guatemalan Prosecutors Urge President to Resign Amid Scandal

Government comptrollers' office also issued a statement saying Perez Molina should resign 'to avoid greater social unrest that could have unpredictable consequences'
More

Bolt Sprints to Double Gold in Beijing

Jamaican's victories take place on track where in 2008 he first made headlines by winning Olympic gold medals in record fashion at Bird's Nest Stadium
More