Street Child World Cup aims to challenge stereotypes, provide opportunity

With up to 150 million children worldwide living on the streets, organizers hope the event can show a non-stereotypical image of these kids. Soccer has its own benefits for players, including the opportunity to build self-confidence and establish friendships.

Leonhard Foeger/Reuters/File
Kids play soccer on a street as a police officer watches outside the Independence stadium before the Argentine national team's training session on June 11, 2014, ahead of the 2014 World Cup. The Street Child World Cup, set for May, brings together children from over 20 countries to play soccer.

Yelling commands and lunging for the ball on the balding astro turf, Khalida Popal drilled the team of nine Mexican teenage girls through soccer training, weeks before they jet off to Russia for the World Cup – the street children's version.

For Ms. Popal, former captain of the Afghan women's soccer team, soccer can open new avenues and boost self-esteem for the Team Mexico girls, who laughed and high-fived as they tackled and scored in the baking heat.

"When you enter the pitch, you forget about everything. The only thing you think about is the ball and the game – that's the beauty of [soccer]," said Popal, who was forced to flee her homeland after death threats.

"I know what it is being without identity, being without family, being without networks," said the ambassador for Street Child United, a British charity, wearing a number 10 top with her name emblazoned on the back.

"What always helped me to come through that tough and difficult situation was to play [soccer]."

Children from more than 20 countries, including India, Brazil, and Kenya, will converge on Moscow in May for the Street Child World Cup, whose ambassadors include Brazil's Gilberto Silva and England's Alex Scott, ahead of FIFA's 2018 event.

With up to 150 million children living on the streets worldwide, according to the United Nations, the organizers hope the event can help erase the stigma surrounding street children and improve their treatment.

"This is a global issue of children not being in a safe home," said Joe Hewitt, head of Americas for Street Child United, on the pitch sidelines.

The event is also a child rights conference, said Street Child United, which works with Casa Alianza, a nonprofit in Mexico that provides a home to more than 100 children, many victims of violence, sexual abuse, and trafficking.

For Mariana Nicol, who is still adjusting to her new life at Casa Alianza, soccer has always been a passion but she never imagined she might get a chance to train and play for Mexico.

"I can't believe it, I feel like it's a dream," said the ponytailed 14-year-old, who is trying to finish primary school. "It's exciting to be training with many kids that I know, and to then grab the ball and run with it or hand it back."

For the Mexican team from Casa Alianza – some of whom have suffered addiction, abuse, and homelessness – flying to Russia will not only expand their horizons but help them see beyond the neglect that has so far dictated their lives, said its head.

"Above all, I think the most important is to know that they can achieve whatever goals they set," said Sofia Almazan Argumedo, Casa Alianza's Mexico director.

Despite growing up half a world away, the Mexican girls related to Popal's story of overcoming intense opposition and intimidation in war-torn Afghanistan to play soccer.

"Her personal experience is very like ours, it's very difficult. But she moved forward and, like me, sought to become a [soccer player]," said Jazmin, 15, who also wants to become a lawyer. She declined to give her full name.

Popal recounted how Afghanistan's first women's national team worked to encourage more women and girls to play football, despite attacks and pressure from people opposed to them playing a "man's game."

"They were saying it's against men's honor and it's not made for women. Women should stay in the kitchen and wash dishes," said Popal, her long hair pulled into a tight plait.

"Many times we got attacked by groups of men. It was really, really difficult."

Fearing for her life after Taliban threats, Popal fled, counting herself "one of the luckiest women in my country" that she escaped being shot like many women's rights activists.

Spending several years underground, she eventually made her way to a Danish asylum center where she encouraged women to play soccer to help ease crippling stress and depression as they awaited the results of their applications.

Now living in Copenhagen, she runs the Girl Power Organization, a nonprofit she founded that uses soccer and sport to help better integrate minorities, including immigrants and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Europe.

Although barriers are gradually crumbling for women in Afghanistan, said Popal, they still have to overcome significant hurdles to play soccer and take part in social activities.

Her home country is hardly alone – women soccer players around the world need more funding, facilities, and equal pay, she said, urging soccer's world governing body FIFA and local soccer federations to step up support.

"Football is my experience," said Popal, who also helped train the England Street Child World Cup team.

"It's all about team building, staying together, having networks, having friendship, happiness, and feeling freedom. It empowers every woman around the world who plays this game."

This article was reported by The Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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