Ciudad Bolivar is the most destitute district in the colossal Colombian capital. Its wiry, chalky roads reach up to 3,100 metres in altitude, where crime rates are extortionate and drug addiction is rife.
Kids simply have little chance in life. The launch of Football for Hope, an initiative that has already aided innumerable underprivileged children across the world, in the country this week is nevertheless hoping to change that. It will pump 1.1m USD over three years into the Colombianitos and SIDOC foundations and benefit 1,400 unprivileged children, aged between five and 18, by using football's incomparable allure to coax them off the streets.
This is, nevertheless, football with a difference, designed not only for sporting enjoyment but also social enlightenment on values such as honesty, friendship and respect. And as well kicking a legitimate ball about on a grass, paint-marked pitch – luxuries to these children – they will also have the profiting gravy of an education and the support of psychologists and social workers, who will strive to identify and tackle problems their pupils encounter at home, such as drug abuse, juvenile delinquency and domestic violence.
And 14-year-old Julian Castano, who joined Colombianitos two years ago, can certainly verify its value. “It's really great,” he enthused, a grin of comfort immediately surfacing on his face. “I love going to the club. I really enjoy the football, but we also learn values and get an education. They offer French classes and in the future I want to start learning other languages, maybe English, because one day I want to play for Chelsea.”
Ana Arizabaleta, Director of Operations at Colombianitos, pinpointed where the problems emanate from: “Ciudad Bolivar is an area of extreme poverty. Many families simply can't afford the money to buy a school uniform to give their children an education. And even the ones that do go to school only study until around midday, and when they get home shortly afterwards, they have no parents there to keep them in check because they have gone to work and don't get home until late.
“So they hang around the streets and get involved in drugs and crime from a really young age. They don't see a different life, but if we can get them into Colombianitos, they do. The football is obviously a major part. It's something kids love and we use it to teach them values.
“But one prerequisite for children coming here is that they must go to school every day [during the week]. We get sponsorships for individuals, so that we can pay for their uniform and other necessities. And if they go to school, they can come to Colombianitos. Truancy levels have improved a lot because of this, and they will improve at a far greater rate thanks to the Football for Hope programme. This initiative is really giving children of Ciudad Bolivar a chance in life.”
Christine Armitage, Director of Operations at SIDOC, added: “To SIDOC and Comuna 20, this project is a chance for the children to learn, through football, about values, principles and a way to solve any conflict in a peaceful way. But it is also a way to generate social capital and knowledge within the community. This way we can guarantee maintaining the project.”
Each youngster is scheduled to spend two one-and-a-half-hour sessions at the club per week, though its doors are always open to help kids with their homework or any problems they may have. The children are given something to eat while they learn fundamental life values, before the football begins.
And it is football drenched in some rosy idiosyncrasies. For starters, there are no referees. You're thinking it must be pandemonium, right? Not so. When one player fouls another, it is the perpetrator rather than the victim who has to raise his hand for a free-kick! And, curiously, they do because, through the pre-match value appreciation and rule definition session, honesty is ingrained into their sporting nature and, moreover, because they have a 15-minute post-match discussion in which any exceptions are addressed.
When a goal transpires, the scorer is congratulated by his team-mates and his opponents, in a custom blueprinted to encourage friendship and respect. And when a breathtaking goal such as an overhead-kick or a diving header unfolds, it's worth two. So which value does that stimulate? “That's just for art!” explained Ana. Well, they do, after all, share nationality with flair machines such as James Rodriguez, Faustino Asprilla, Rene Higuita, Carlos Valderrama and Willington Ortiz!
The latter, albeit consensually recognised as one of his country's greatest-ever players, enjoyed his pomp during an era in which Colombian footballers invariably retired bereft of the riches their genius would have nowadays commanded. Ortiz's niece, Camila Villanueva, is one of the 700 members of SIDOC. Yesterday, she left Comuna 20, one of Cali's poorest areas, for a trip to Ciudad Bolivar for an exhibition match with Colombianitos to mark the inauguration of the Football for Hope programme.
“This is one of the best days of my life,” the beaming 13-year-old said. “I don't want it to end! I have made some new friends and really enjoyed the football. Being part of this club has given me this opportunity.
“I love going to the club and playing football and learning values. I'm also learning English,” she added before substituting Spanish to flaunt her new-found language skills. “I have just started learning, but my cousin speaks English very well. My football idols are my uncle and Luis Muriel,” she said to applause from impressed adults.
Reverting back to her mother tongue, Camila discussed the problems of being an adolescent in Barrio Siloe, Comuna 20. “A lot of people my age are already involved in drugs and murders. It's common to get caught up in those things, but fortunately I found the club.”
And fortunately, thanks to the inception of the Football for Hope initiative, hundreds more disadvantaged kids from Bogota and Cali will now follow the path Julian and Camila embarked upon towards an incalculably better life.