“I’m mad-keen on football,” said 11-year-old Nicolas, grinning broadly. The shirt on his back - that of his hero, Chile attacker Alexis Sanchez - backs that up. So, too, does his tangible excitement ahead of a very special visit: from Germany’s U-17 squad.
The European youngsters, in the city of Chillan competing in Group C of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015, were about to arrive at the *Hogar Residencial de Niños y Adolescentes Francisco Reinisch *(Francisco Reinisch Residential Home for Children and Youths), the shelter where Nicolas is living, along with nine other boys and girls at risk of social exclusion.
“The children were really excited when I told them the Germany players were coming,” said the home’s director Maria Antonieta, who leads the group of monitors that live and work with the children on a daily basis, when speaking to FIFA.com. “We try and make this centre more like a family home than an institution. The kids go to school, get medical treatment and we try to give them the chance to take part in extra-curricular activities.”
Nicolas, for example, trains with other children at local club Nublense, in sessions designed to provide a stepping stone towards – hopefully – a place in the club’s youth set-up. “I’ve been playing with them for ten months now and we train three times a week. I play at left-back!” The youngster was barely able to contain his enthusiasm.
Once the Germany squad arrives, though, the centre, only the size of a modest family home, starts to feel a touch cramped. So, after a few slightly tentative opening exchanges between the players and children, both groups find the ideal way of breaking the ice: an improvised kickaround on the dirt pitch in the yard behind the home. Nicolas and another of the boys from the shelter pick the teams, and away they go.
“Every time we visit other countries, when time permits, we try to organise other activities, away from football,” said Germany coach Christian Wuck, smiling as he surveyed the scene. And, so far, his charges have combined their training, preparation and match schedule here at the U-17 World Cup with a friendly clash against Nublense’s U-18 team and a visit to a German school in the city.
Lessons for football and life
“If we didn’t show them, a lot of my players wouldn’t be aware there are a lot of children that aren’t as fortunate as they are, and it’s a good thing for them to find out,” continued Wuck, on the trip to the children’s shelter. “This visit is good for the kids but also for my players, because this World Cup’s not just about football. At this age, you have to teach them about life too. A lot of them might not make it into the pro game, and they need to know what real life is like.”
In the meantime, Nicolas is busy giving his all during the kickabout, before challenging Germany defender Dominik Franke to show off his considerable ball skills. The visit then concludes with presents for the children and a financial donation, in order for the centre to carry out some improvement work on the schoolyard.
“Football doesn’t begin in big stadiums - it starts with something as simple as children kicking a ball around,” said Doctor Hans-Dieter Drewitz, head of the German delegation here on Chilean soil. The players and coaching staff then all pose for a group photo alongside the children and monitors, at the same time as leaving a parting gift: tickets to see their next game here at Chile 2015, Germany-Argentina, a repeat of the Final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ no less.
“At this World Cup we’ll be supporting both Chile and Germany,” said Nicolas, all set for a unique experience - attending his first-ever World Cup match. And come Wednesday’s encounter, the German players will also know they can count on a small but very special supporters’ group up in the stands.