Soccer helps some young Hondurans escape the gangs

Associated Press
In this Monday, March 3, 2014 photo, 11-year-old Maynor Ayala holds a soccer ball as he poses for a portrait before practice at his neighborhood's pitch in Progreso, Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Maynor allows himself to imagine going all the way to the World Cup one day, just like one of his heroes, Emilio Izaguirre, who will play in Brazil this summer on the Honduran national team. “I want to be a soccer player,” Maynor says. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — From the dusty soccer pitch, 11-year-old Maynor Ayala can see two ways out of the gang-controlled slums: on a professional soccer team, or in a cheap coffin.

Maynor is euphoric after scoring a goal for the first time in weeks, and he briefly allows himself to imagine going to the World Cup one day.

But then his boyish smile fades into hard talk. "My cousin was shot here on the field," Maynor says, miming a pistol with his thumb and index finger.

"Remember the taxi driver they executed here a while ago?" asks his 14-year-old friend, Marvin Cruz.

"We also went to see a body cut in pieces over there by the bridge," Maynor adds.

Their coach listens with despair. Luis Lopez, 45, who uses a wheelchair because of a bicycle accident over a decade ago, is working the kids hard, hoping the discipline of sport will keep them out of the gangs that dominate much of Tegucigalpa. His threadbare soccer program is modest compared to the challenges these children face: the pull of the streets, violence, poverty and drugs. But as for slum children from Brazil to Botswana, the game is also a lifeline.

Maynor, Marvin and others on the pitch give the coach hope against the reality of pot smokers on the sidelines of the pitch and lost souls like 14-year-old Antony who don't stay in school.

Luisito is teaching boys and girls to play soccer, knowing that the real game is to stay alive.

Maynor may not know the statistics — that a child his age is shot to death every four days in Honduras, and that the odds only get worse as you get older. But he knows that violent death is common, and that the corpses offer a glimpse of his future if he moves toward the gangs.

He goes to see the bodies, he says, "because you think that next time it could be you there."

Maynor's neighborhood is called Progreso, a name that mocks its dirt roads, open sewage canals and crowded houses. It is surrounded by gang territories and an iron fence its 100 families put up to keep out criminals.

Even so, children hide inside after dark.

The soccer pitch is built on a graveyard of neighbors who were buried alive when Hurricane Mitch collapsed the hills in 1998. Jose de la Paz Herrera, known as "Chelato Ucles," the godfather of Honduran soccer, stepped in with funds to help equip it.

Now 74, he managed the first Honduran team to reach the World Cup — to Spain in 1982 — and he still combs the slums in search of talent like Emilio Izaguirre, 28, one of just five Hondurans playing for a European league.

Izaguirre, who lived in a neighborhood like Progreso, one of the many battlefields between the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs, competed in the World Cup four years ago and will be on the pitch for Honduras again at the Cup starting next month in Brazil.

After his accident, Luisito first began coaching adults. But his attention was drawn to kids on the sidelines. Either they already belonged to a gang or they would soon be recruited, he thought.

Last June, Luisito proposed a youth soccer program, telling parents, "training and practice have to defeat vice, and the violence of the gangs."

Days later, about 40 boys and girls turned out to sign up.

Luisito tells the kids soccer will keep them out of trouble, and they say that is what they want.

"A boy who becomes a gangster ends up killing," Maynor says. "Violence is the bad road, something that leads to your own death."

Luisito and the kids are careful when speaking of the gangs, and do not talk about them by name.

"The neighborhood over there is controlled by one gang," Luisito says. Then turning the opposite way, he adds, "and over there it's the other side." Neither gang has taken control of Progreso.

When Antony arrived some months ago, he signed the roster with only his first name and age, 14. The kids told Luisito he smoked marijuana. Instead of going to school, he spent his days on buses dressed as a clown, begging for spare change.

"When he came to the field, we teased him and threw rocks," Maynor says.

On a recent day, soccer practice ended with a sense of anticipation. The following night Honduras had a match against Venezuela, and the boys were looking forward to watching on TV. Their spirits fell that evening, however, when word spread that a boy had been found dead, beaten and shot in the legs. Before bedtime, Maynor learns it was Antony.

The next morning, Maynor and his friends stop to see Antony in an open casket. "He was really purple," Maynor says. Neighbors take cellphone pictures of the boy's battered face.

By that night, Antony is all but forgotten. The kids yell and jump up and down when Honduras scores, then grow anxious when Venezuela ties it up. They're on their feet when Honduras wins.

If life offers lessons, so does death. Luisito is not about to let Antony's killing pass, any more than he would miss the opportunity to herald Izaguirre's success.

Luisito was able to ferret out some details about Antony: he apparently got involved with the 18th Street gang and ran into trouble crossing into Mara Salvatrucha territory.

"No one wants to end like Antony, right?" Luisito asks the boys.

The coach will continue to use Antony as an example until there is another corpse with a different name to take his place. Not two weeks pass before the next one: A young man killed on the soccer pitch. He was not a player, but this time the kids are too scared even to speak his name.

Luisito wants the kids to believe there is an alternative to professional soccer or death, and Maynor begins to imagine a third option.

"I would like to travel and sell cars around Honduras and even outside of Honduras. That would be a fun job," he says on a recent afternoon.

That gives Luis hope.

"On this field, there are 40 boys and girls playing soccer and only three or four smoking. For now, I am winning. I am giving them a choice. Before, they had no choice," he says.

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Alberto Arce on Twitter: http://twitter.com/alberarce

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