The defenders of Chaco
© Football Hidden Story

It started with 12.

They were 12 youths, just hanging around at a street corner in Chaco Chico, a socially-deprived suburb of Buenos Aires. Then two men happened to pass along, Fabián Ferraro and Julio Gimenez. Fabián was a player for Argentino de Merlo, a first division football club. 

And football was in the air, even more than usual in soccer-crazy Argentina. 
It was 1994, and the FIFA World Cup™ was kicking off in the USA. Inspired by the tournament, Fabián and Julio started to play football with the 'apathetic 12.'   

"What we did was pretty simple," recalled Fabian. "We just cleared a space, to provide a meeting place for the kids to play soccer in a constructive way, a disciplined way. But we were aiming community in general: children, young people and adults. If you help the kids - you help everyone. To be honest, we never thought it would grow.

"The pact we made with those youths was that we would play a tournament, just that - and then it would be all over; the relationship would finish forever. Like the World Cup! But when, after a time, there were 50, then 300, well, we had a responsibility, Julio and I. Defensores kept on growing, it became larger day by day. Kids want to play the beautiful game the way we play it."

At the centre of their vision was that these listless young people should be offered quality and beauty. Even if it were a dump, in a field without toilets, even if there were no football shirts, we would offer quality and beauty. Proper sport with noble ideals. 

Chaco is by no means the most squalid-looking area of Buenos Aires.  It has green open spaces. Yet there is, nonetheless, an uncomfortable feeling of danger not far away. Sixty per cent of the Argentine population live below the poverty line, and in this rather dull suburb it is easy for youths to drift into drugs, drink and violence, from sheer tedium.

A community without dreams, full of apathy
But Defensores is there to help. Max, one of the Defensores del Chaco coaches, tells us Chaco Chico would be a very sad community without their movement: "A community without dreams, full of apathy, with lots of children dying on a street corner, as in many other places in our country. Defensores helps people to believe in the future, to know everything can happen, and anything can be achieved."  

Max speaks with authority, having been one of the endangered children rescued by the movement. "This is very personal to me," he said. "Maybe I wouldn't be here, not even alive!"

The original 12 are now 1,200. And they don't just play football. They take part in other sports, and cultural pursuits like art, drama and music. There are opportunities to train to become football coaches or cultural workers. Some are supported in attaining a place at University. And the movement has travelled far beyond Chaco Chico, beyond Argentina.

As Fabián says, "A ball has no language and knows no frontiers." You get the feeling he isn't just talking about the frontiers between countries - but the also frontiers between classes and genders, and the frontiers in our own minds: the rigid thinking that condemns the poor as undeserving.

Defensores del Chaco shows that people from any background can play sport with the ideals of the best Olympians; through that it offers the deprived and the desolate a chance to regain their self respect.

The particular idea of Street Football (Fútbol Callejero), which is practised and evangelised by Defensores, is that social values are more important than goals.  Teams agree on a code of behaviour beforehand, involving fairness and respect; at the end of the game points are rewarded for these, by mutual agreement, and it may be that the team which has scored more goals ends up losing. Fabián's efforts in this sphere have been so successful he is now the South American regional co-ordinator for Football for Hope, FIFA's Movement to spread social change through football. 

They get better every day
That means he's less hands-on and boots-on than he used to be. But he doesn't mind. He thinks it's good that he has given up the reins at Defensores to younger people.  "It's restless youth that challenge the whole system of oppression," he asserts, in passionate tones.  "All the youngsters who are at Defensores today, leading this organisation and growing within it, challenge the system in one way or another. They always want to be the best, they won't just accept the way life 'has to be.' They do better every day."

In a way, Defensores has grown too big to stop growing.  For example, they are now building a much-needed kindergarten. And more projects are in the pipeline - Defensores want to reach out to others, physically as well as ideologically, Every year, delegations of boys and girls from Defensores del Chaco visits other, similar organizations in Argentina - and elsewhere. The goal of these travels is to enrich both side, the visitors and the visited: because the participating kids share the broadening experience of encountering new worlds and new people. Which helps them grow further.

One of the young men who has moved from being coached to coaching, is 18-year-old Gabriel Yago. He is known to his joshing friends as 'el gringo', the foreigner - because his mother is fair-skinned. When he was born, he was so fair that even an aunt called him 'Gringo'.  He was a very shy boy but, when he came to Defensores at ten - simply because he enjoyed football, they helped him make easily friends with the other lads. He is now an assistant, in charge of the youngest age group, aged eight to nine.   

I teach them things about life
"I think what I enjoy mosti, is when I teach them things about life, I enjoy that more than the sport itself," he said. A lot of the kids don't like school and won't study; Gabriel knows how they feel, because he was made to repeat two years of schooling. At Defensores they told him that, if he didn't study he couldn't stay, so he buckled down, and did his homework.   

He concludes his story: "I was taught to take responsibility, and listen to what my elders advise, with respect." Amongst Fabián's pibes, are his young sons. Gabriel says he is also learning from all of them - the children. 

For Fabián, this is democracy in action - the young taking over from the old, to build a better society. Ideally he wants to see the young taking the lead - and one of Defensores's aims is to train the leaders of the future, people who can guide their communities when the football is over.

Back at the football ground the lively pibes, having finished a game, have started another one - this time it's table football outside a nearby shop. All the talk is of their idols, the footballers of Argentina.  Which is better, Crespo or Tevez? "Crespo can get up higher and is the better header," but "There's only one Carlos Tevez."  Of course they've seen Maradona in news clips, and he is the god. As they spin the table-football-players, they exchange memories of great goals they've seen on TV.  Their arguments are passionate, but friendly. The atmosphere is jovial and upbeat.

The scene is literally a microcosm of the Defensores del Chaco movement. This is football bringing kids together, to play a simple game against each other. Through this development through football programme , they learn that opposition doesn't have to mean violence, and leisure doesn't have to mean drugs, drink, or stealing. 

By the way, they also learn to play some great football.