January 2013

When football is not just a game

Football all over the world is a passion of multitude; millions play and enjoy this popular sport. In Europe we have a championship called the Champions league and Latin America has the Copa America. However, I never suspected coming to Bolivia could give me a new perspective on this sport. To find out more, I visit the Football School Real Cochabamba.

By: Mikkel Behnke
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Albertslund- Denmark

Practice has begun
Photo: Mikkel Behnke

I apparently arrive early since only some of the coaches are here and some kids holding their mothers hand; they seem eager and cannot wait until practice begins. I do not blame them. I remember my first day of football practice as if it was yesterday. I felt pure excitement, but also I was a bit scared. Perhaps they feel the same way? I decide to go ask one of the mothers why she and her kid are here. "I’m here with my son, primarily, because he likes football – so does his father." Her son looks up at me and gives me big smile. I look at him and he nods as if agreeing to what his mother just said. Then he, with pride and satisfaction, shows me his brand new shoes for football. Then the mother says something that really catches my attention.

"PERO we are not only here for him to learn just about the game itself." She looks down at her son for a second and then continues. "He is also here to learn to function in a group – to function with others. To learn about the social interaction." Her son does not nod anymore. He looks confused and then he says: "I just like football mom."

Football as education

After having talked to the mother I walk around the grounds of Real Cochabamba. And for the first time I get a glimpse of how popular this football school is but also how popular football in general is here in Cochabamba and Bolivia; there are about 5 pitches that are packed with kids from 5 to 18 years. There is only one instructor for every team and some have around 40 players so the coach is in for a challenge. I am standing watching a group of kids who are about 5-6-7 years old. The thing I notice standing here, at a place of fun and education, is how the coach organises the training; how the kids let themselves be organised – and importantly organised within a group. And then I understand and fully get what the mother I spoke to earlier meant; we live amid people with people thus making life almost impossible if not able to interact with others. And football can, among many other things, provide, help and guide you in, as I remembered the mother had said: "learning about life".

"[My son] learns about the importance of dedication, seriousness and responsibility towards others – but also towards himself!"

With those words in mind I go sit next to a woman in her fifties. Sweat pearls are running down her forehead and the sun does not give her any peace. But though her suffering in heat of the sun she is fully concentrated on following her sons every move. Not to scare I quietly say señora – it does not help and she gets a bit of a shock when hearing my deep voice, close to her, saying señora. Quickly I explain to her the purpose of my presence. Then she lights up and starts speaking.

"My son can learn a lot from football. Essentially he can learn about living and getting along with others. He learns about the importance of dedication, seriousness and responsibility towards others – but also towards himself!" I ask if she can elaborate and she just says: "It shapes his personality. It is part of his education." I nod – like the kid from earlier.

I am also interested in why so many kids play football. So I ask. "Well. It is the kids’ holiday right now so many do not have anything to do." She pauses and continues. "And for some all the extra time can result in them doing things you should not do." Quickly I ask if she thinks football can keep kids away from drugs and the dangerous life of the street. "It can. Football keeps them occupied and distracted. They are with friends and having fun here. Football gives meaning and purpose – a lust for things." I thank her for her time and look at the small kids now playing. They all run after the ball at the same time. But if there is something you are being taught from the beginning is that football is teamwork. Like life.

Football as a saviour

After my conversation with the woman I walk around the grounds watching the kids playing football. I am watching but my mind is elsewhere. I am thinking about what the woman said and what I myself learned from playing football. I find myself agreeing with both of the women I had spoken to. But still I want to talk to some of the coaches as well – so they can either confirm or decline everything. When practice is over I see to coaches walking towards me. I stop them and ask if they have time for some questions. They seem exhausted. The sun and the warm weather has tired them – but probably also the many kids. Still they agree to answer some questions. One of them is a volunteer and the other one a coach which he has been for six years. First I ask them why they think there are so many attending the football school. The coach starts: "Mainly because it is popular. Also they are in a group – a group of friends. Here they learn about teamwork." The volunteer continues. "Yes – it is popular. They are engaged and occupied and they like this. It is social sport. It is a group activity. And I think that this is one of the most important reasons for its popularity." I nod – once again like the kid.

The coach has lined up the kids in a row
Photo: Mikkel Behnke

Then I tell them about the conversations that I have had and if they agree if soccer really can be somewhat of a salvation. They look at each other figuring out who should begin. Once again the coach opens. "The short answer is, yes. As I said it keeps the kids occupied thus making them unavailable for other things – bad things. It helps. Here they are given an activity that they like. They are given an activity they have to attend. They can use all their energy when playing here." And then he looks at the volunteer as if saying I am done and now it is your turn. "Yes. I agree. I guess when you learn about, which you do learn about when playing soccer, making things work – in a group. And that is essential to be able to make a group function. And when you learn these things I believe the path to bad things such as drugs, crime etc. has been lengthened a lot. Hopefully and probably so long so you choose not to go down that path."

And then they once again look at each other. I say thank you and they seem grateful to be able to get some rest before practice starts again in the afternoon.

This is not just a game

Football crosses all geographic, ethnic and religious boundaries and serves as a global platform for education. It engages people, it encourages teamwork and teaches young people about vital things such as hard work, commitment and relying and functioning with others.

I walk home thinking about football
football not just as a game.

A taste of Cochabamba city -
Cafe Paris
It is Monday morning and four volunteers meet for breakfast at Café Paris. At one of the corners of Plaza Principal the café is located very centrally of Cochabamba and adds to the life around the Plaza. The half moon shaped room, with the bar in the middle and a lot of small café tables with small French alike café chairs, is a nice and welcoming room to enter. The walls are held in light green and yellow colours and there is dark wood from the floor up to the height of the bar. In the bar the colour blue in a light but neon shade has won and together with the dark wood it sends happy vibrations to the guests.
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