Gerard Pique, currently in Brazil for the FIFA Confederations Cup, spends most of his days preparing for matches and then marking the best forwards in world football. On Wednesday, however, the Spain international broke from his usual routine to spend a morning with youngsters from Vencer – a programme run by the Instituto de Companheiros das Américas (ICA), with support from FIFA's Football for Hope project.
During his visit to Vencer ('win' in Portuguese) in the underprivileged Curicica area of Rio de Janeiro, the Barcelona defender led a series of football-based activities for around 20 teenagers, all aged between 16 and 24. In one exercise, the youngsters were divided into two teams of five pairs. Each pair was asked to hold hands, and had to try to play a game of football without letting go of their partners. After a while another layer of difficulty was added to the task, with one player in each pair having to put on a blindfold.
"These activities are designed to help them understand the importance of teamwork, communicate with their partners and learn how to trust one another," explained the ICA's director, Heloisa Andrade. "Vencer's aim is to help them, through football, develop the skills they need to get into work."
It's very satisfying to see this group of young people preparing so that they can get a job in the future, and to see the role that football can play in the process.
With FIFA's Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, Federico Addiechi, watching on, Andrade then detailed the four steps of the programme. She placed particular focus on the final two stages, which involve scholarship schemes and monitoring of the youngsters' professional progress.
After the session, Pique took time to reflect on his experience and answer questions from the young attendees. "It's great that you all want to be footballers, but what's more important is that you always aspire to be better people," he said in reply to one boy, who was still clutching the ball from an earlier game. "Few players get to play professionally, so you must try to study and prepare so that you can get a good job."
Seventeen-year-old Iara, who was lucky enough to partner Pique during the session, said: "It's amazing to have him here. I had never been that close to a professional footballer before. He's really nice and I think his message is very valuable: you must work hard, push yourself and strive to improve, as that's how you'll achieve your goals."
After posing for photos, sharing some jokes and engaging in a light-hearted argument about which team he should play for, Pique stopped to share his thoughts with FIFA.com. "It was an amazing experience," he said. "It's very satisfying to see this group of young people preparing so that they can get a job in the future, and to see the role that football can play in the process.
"They’re making sacrifices and trying to improve. For me it's very important to recognise this side of football, and to appreciate how much projects like Football for Hope can do to help."