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Soccer helps some young Hondurans to avoid gangs

Sunday - 5/25/2014, 11:30am  ET

In this Thursday, March 6, 2014 photo, a sewage river passes next to the soccer pitch in the Progreso neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The soccer field was built on a graveyard of victims of Hurricane Mitch, neighbors who were buried alive in mud as the hills collapsed around them in 1998 and whose bodies were never recovered. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

ALBERTO ARCE
Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) -- From where he sits on a dusty soccer pitch between the fetid Choluteca River and four-lane Armed Forces Boulevard, 11-year-old Maynor Ayala can see only two ways out of the gang-controlled slums of the capital: on a professional soccer team, or in a cheap coffin.

Sweating and gulping water on a hot Saturday afternoon, he is euphoric after scoring a goal for the first time in weeks. Briefly, he 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.

But as Maynor and his friends settle down on the rock-studded field, 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 as they tick off the dead. Luis Lopez, 45, who has used a wheelchair since a bicycle accident more than a decade ago, is working the kids hard every day but Sunday, hoping that the discipline of sport will keep them out of violent street 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 the others seated on the ground are some of the kids who give the coach hope. Not the pot-smokers on the sidelines, not lost souls like 14-year-old Antony who don't stay in school. Luisito is teaching these boys and girls to play soccer, knowing that the real game for them is to stay alive.

"Why do you have to go look at the bodies?" he asks.

To Maynor, the answer seems perfectly obvious. "What if it's your father or brother or mother? You have to go see."

He may not know the statistic -- that a child his age was shot to death every four days in Honduras last year, or that the odds only get worse as you grow older. But Maynor senses that the corpses in his neighborhood 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."

___

The neighborhood where Maynor lives is called Progreso, a name that mocks its dirt roads, open sewage canals and overcrowded houses with corrugated metal roofs that make a deafening racket in the rain. It sits downhill from a private golf course, surrounded by rival gang territories. There's a gated iron fence that its 100 families put up and lock at night to keep out criminals. Even so, Maynor and the other children hide inside after dark and sometimes hit the ground at the sound of gunfire.

In the daytime, dogs nose through piles of garbage on the roadsides. Along the banks of the Choluteca, children and adults alike dig through scum for sand they can sell to construction sites for about $2 per 100-pound bag. Vultures circle overhead.

The soccer pitch is built on a graveyard of victims of Hurricane Mitch, neighbors who were buried alive in mud as the hills collapsed around them in 1998 and whose bodies were never recovered. The field owes its stands and fence to the help of Jose de la Paz Herrera, known as "Chelato Ucles," the godfather of Honduran soccer. Chelato, 74, was the manager of the first Honduran national team ever to make it to the World Cup -- to Spain in 1982 -- and for that he became a national hero as well as a member of parliament for a time.

For years, Chelato has combed the slums of Honduras in search of talent like Izaguirre, 28, now a left defender for the Glasgow Celtic and one of just five Hondurans with a prized spot in a European league. Izaguirre lived in a neighborhood much like Progreso, one of the many battlefields between the warring Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs. He was recruited onto a team in the national federation, where Chelato spotted him. He went on to become a member of the Honduran national team that made it to the World Cup four years ago in South Africa.

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