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PARAGUAY: Football – Dream for Kids, Moneyspinner for Adults

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCION, May 6 2010 (IPS) - From passion for football, to football as a profession: many parents in Paraguay are hoping this sport will provide a career for their sons, who flood into football schools with the burden of their dreams — and their parents’ demands — to become sports idols.

Youngsters training at the SC10 football school. Credit: Natalia Ruiz Díaz/IPS

Youngsters training at the SC10 football school. Credit: Natalia Ruiz Díaz/IPS

“He loves football, and I think he has great potential,” Pabla Gómez, the mother of a 10-year-old who trains every day at the SC10 football school on the outskirts of Asunción, told IPS. Like many other parents, she spends hours riding public transport and waiting around, for the sake of her son’s future.

In the adjacent field, where the over-13s are training, technical demands, skills and expectations begin to take over from simply having fun.

From the stands, a father acting as an impromptu coach is constantly giving his son directions: “Oh, no, you lost it again! That’s no good! You’ve got to stick to the ball!”

This school is a training ground for 180 boys between the ages of seven and 13. Older boys who have what it takes go on to play professionally, with the hope of being selected by a first division Paraguayan club.

“We promote football as a sport, from the perspective that it is healthy fun,” Luis Romero, the head of SC10, told IPS.


Football schools have mushroomed all over Paraguay since 1986, when the national team took part in the Mexico World Cup after a gap of 24 years of failing to qualify for the championship.

One year later, the Paraguayan Association of Children’s Football Schools (APEFI) was created. Dedicated to organising tournaments, it was the first organisation to bring together children’s football centres, Rubén Maldonado, president of the Confederation of Football Schools (COFEFU), told IPS.

The success of the tournaments and the proliferation of football schools led to the creation of the Paraguayan Federation of Football Schools (FEPEFU) in 1991, whose coverage spread from Asunción to the rest of the country. COFEFU, founded in 2002, now has under its umbrella five federations in the metropolitan area of Asunción, including 15,000 children enrolled in 92 football schools.

Maldonado said the phenomenal growth in the number of football schools was boosted by the gradual disappearance of neighbourhood football grounds — improvised pitches on empty plots of land where local youngsters used to play.

These free spaces have almost all disappeared and have been replaced by artificial turf pitches in private establishments.

Another very important positive influence was that Paraguayan players became international football stars and local idols. In 1998, Paraguay classified again for the World Cup held in France, after not making it to the two previous four-yearly Cup tournaments. This time the team was captained by José Luis Chilavert, later named the best goalkeeper in the world.

The 1999 Copa América tournament dazzled young Roque Santacruz, trained in the football school run by Olimpia, one of the foremost Paraguayan clubs. Santacruz went on to make local history when he was transferred to the German team Bayern, in Munich, for seven million dollars.

“Having a son play professionally is every father’s dream, but here in this school we keep our feet on the ground. Our role is to teach the boys and train them,” said Romero.

In Maldonado’s view, “some parents have their eye on becoming millionaires through their children’s success” when they take them to a football school.

The idea of football as a means to fame and fortune caught on rapidly in a country where 36.6 percent of the population of 6.2 million live in poverty.

In fact, except for those run by the professional clubs, most football schools are set up on the initiative of parents’ groups.

SC10 is an exception, as it belongs to Salvador Cabañas, the Paraguayan striker at the 2006 world championship in Germany. His jersey number at the time was 10.

“Salvador is his idol, and that encourages him to train hard,” said Gómez about his son as he watched him dribble up the side of the field.

Whether or not Cabañas will be playing in the World Championship that opens on Jun. 11 in South Africa is still uncertain, following his injury from a gunshot wound to the head in January in Mexico City, where he plays for the América team. The incident caused a huge commotion and a wave of expressions of support from his fans in both countries.

Sports analyst Benicio Martínez told IPS that it was unprecedented for an incident involving a sports star to have such a wide and deep impact throughout society in Paraguay. “Never before has such a mass interest in football been so clearly demonstrated,” he said.

Maldonado highlighted the fact that 90 percent of the Paraguayan national team has come up through the football schools, showing that they work well as a seedbed of future football stars, although “their primary goal is entertainment and discipline for the boys,” he stressed.

Cabañas is an example of the process. He trained at a football school in Itauguá, a small town 30 kilometres south of Asunción.

Now he is recovering in Argentina, and there is no official word yet whether he is to be excluded from the Paraguayan team that will go to South Africa.

Meanwhile Iván and Pablo, aged 13 and 14 respectively, are training vigorously. They are the most outstanding in a group of promising youngsters at the SC10 school, whose dream is to represent their country in a future world championship, like the founder of their school.

 
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