|© UNICEF Honduras/2008/Niles|
|Young footballers, who play in the Fútbol Para la Vida league, a programme that uses sport to improve young lives, line up during a break in practice at a ball field in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.|
By Chris Niles
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, 11 August 2008 - When he scored against host country Spain in the 1982 FIFA Wold Cup, Héctor Zelaya grabbed the attention of football fans worldwide. Today, in his home country of Honduras, his influence on the lives of children is no less profound.
The former star, who earned the nickname “Pecho de Águila” (Hawk Chest), is the founder of the wildly successful children’s league, Fútbol Para la Vida, which he started in 2002.
“It’s one of the strongest programmes in the world, and it’s growing. Right now we have more than 10,000 children enrolled. Altogether, more than 25,000 children have gone through the programme and are now living better lives,” Mr. Velaya said.
Fútbol Para la Vida is one example of many successful programmes that UNICEF works with to harness the massive potential of sport to improve the lives of children.
One of the many benefits of sport is that it gives vulnerable children a concrete alternative to drugs and violent crime - two issues that Honduras struggles with.
Ander Vasquez, age 14, is one of the thousands of children who have benefited from Fútbol Para la Vida. He lives with his family in Villaneuva, a neighbourhood in Tegucigalpa known for violent gangs.
|© UNICEF Honduras/2008/Niles|
|Héctor Zelaya,the founder of Fútbol Para la Vida, poses with two young footballers who participate in Fútbol Para la Vida, a football league based in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, that has more than 10,000 players.|
“Before, we walked the streets barefoot. But now all we do is play,” he said.
Ander’s life has improved in other ways as well. He studies harder because good school grades are one of the conditions of joining Fútbol Para la Vida. The programme is also educating Ander about how to avoid drugs and HIV.
“I like football because it keeps me away from drugs and bad habits,” Ander said.
New ambitions for children
The programme is making a notable difference in Villaneuva as well.
“This neighbourhood used to be one of the most dangerous in Honduras, but now it is different. The crime rate has gone down,” said coach Ever Antonio Ponce Medina.
Ander’s father, Giovanni Antonio Saenz, has seen the change in his son’s outlook.
“Sport has raised awareness in kids that they can have a new ambition. They want to have a healthy body and mind and stay away from drugs,” he said.
“The football brings the children in, but the aim is to educate them so they can help our society,” said Mr. Zelaya, who remembers growing up poor and playing football without shoes.
“Something to be proud of”
Mr. Zelaya intends to take Fútbol Para la Vida nationwide, and says UNICEF’s support has played a critical role in the programme’s success.
“I tell the children they have something in common with FC Barcelona,” he said, referring to UNICEF’s alliance with one the world’s most legendary football teams. “I tell them it’s something to be proud of.”