Football offers Lela, 17, a chance to travel outside Georgia
By Anna Azaryeva
For the 2006 FIFA World Cup, UNICEF and FIFA are campaigning to ensure a more peaceful world for children. To wrap up our series on Team UNICEF's star players, here is a final youth profile.
NEW YORK, USA – For 17-year-old Lela, football is more than a game. It is a chance to overcome her impoverished background and find a better future.
“Football is my life,” says Lela. “When I play football I forget everything.”
Almost all of Lela’s life in Georgia has been marred by the social and economic disintegration that followed her country’s independence in 1991. Armed conflicts in Georgia’s two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, caused massive internal migration.
When Lela’s father left home, her mother moved her and her twin sister Lali back to their native Kodjori, where they made a home in an abandoned kindergarten. Kodjori, a small village 30 minutes away from the capital, Tbilisi, became home to numerous displaced families.
Lela’s family cannot afford to take proper care of her and her sister. The siblings spend most of their weekdays at a children’s institution, where they get meals and participate in activities after school.
“I am unemployed,” explains Lela’s mother, Nunu Chichinadze. “The children grew up at a nearby children’s institution. Even now, they pretty much live in there. The only income for our family is the pension my mother receives.”
An empowering experience
A year ago, after the Georgian Government set out to encourage women’s football, Lela earned a place on the national youth team. Football has quickly become her greatest passion.
“Lela loves to play football,” explains Ms. Chichinadze as she watches her daughter play. “She finished school and wants to go to the Institute of Sports. She says she can’t live without football. No marriage, no husband – only football!”
For Lela, joining the national team has been an empowering experience, as well as an opportunity to travel. She has already played for her country in Bosnia and Azerbaijan, and in September the team will be playing in Macedonia.
“Football is the kind of sport that everybody can play – young or old, rich or poor. It unites people,” says Lela’s coach and role model, Maya Japaridze. “I wouldn’t call it a cure-all, but it is pretty close.”