defensores offers beauty and quality

Football is in the air in the soccer crazy Argentina.

Football is in the air in the soccer crazy Argentina.

Twelve kids are hanging around on the street corner in Chaco Chico, a socially-deprived suburb of Buenos Aires where Fabián Ferraro and Julio Gimenez are passing by. Fabián was a player for Argentino de Merlo, a first division club.

Defensores (a football club) started during 1994 while the Fifa World Cup was kicking off in the USA. Fabián and Julio were inspired by the tournament and started to play football with 'the apathetic twelve'.

"What we did was pretty simple. We cleared some space to provide a meeting place for the kids to play soccer in a constructive and disciplined way. We were aiming at the general community, both children and adults. To be honest, we never thought this would grow. The agreement made with the youth was that we would play just one tournament, thereafter everything will be over. At that time, fifty people attended, that eventually amounted to three hundred. Defensores kept growing as kids want to play "the beautiful game of football," says Fabián.

Their vision was that the dispirited young people should be offered 'quality' and 'beauty'. Even if they were not wearing proper football shirts and played in a field without basic facilities, they would experience quality and beauty, a proper sport with noble ideals.

Chaco is the sleaziest looking area of Buenos Aires. With green open spaces, there is still an uncomfortable feeling of danger. Sixty per cent of the Argentine population lives below the poverty line. Because of sheer boredom in the dull suburbs, it is rather easy for youth to drift into drugs, drinking and violence.

Defensores football organisation is there to help the community. Max, a Defensores del Chaco coach says that Chaco Chico would be a very sad community without their movement. "A community without dreams, full of apathy, with children dying on the street corners. Defensores helps people believe in the future and to trust that anything can be achieved," he says.

Max speaks with authority, having been one of the more fortunate children rescued by the movement. "It's very personal, if it wasn't for Defensores, I would not be alive today," he says.

They participate in various sports and cultural activities like art, drama, music and given opportunities to train to become football coaches or cultural workers. A number of members are supported to attend university. Thus the movement has progressed far beyond Chaco Chico and Argentina.

As Fabián Ferraro says: "A ball has no language and knows no frontiers."

One gets the feeling he isn't just talking about the frontiers between countries, but the frontiers between classes, genders, and the rigid thinking that condemns the poor as undeserving.

Defensores del Chaco offers the deprived and isolated a chance to regain their self respect.

The idea of Street Football which is practised and evangelised by Defensores is that 'social values are more important than goals'. Teams agree on a code of behaviour, involving fairness and respect and at the end of the game points are rewarded for these attributes, thus the team that has scored more goals can still lose the game. Fabián's efforts in this sphere were very successful. He is now the South American regional co-ordinator of Football for Hope, Fifa's movement to spread social change through football.

This means he is less hands on than he used to be, which he thinks is good as he has given up the reins at Defensores to younger people.

"It's the restless youth that challenges the system of oppression. All the youngsters leading Defensores and growing within it challenge the system in one way or another. They want to be the best and won't just accept the way life is. Therefore they do better every day," Fabian asserts with a passionate tone.

Defensores has grown extensively. An example is that they are now building a much needed kindergarden with more projects in the pipeline. Defensores wants to reach out to others, physically as well as ideologically. Annually, the boys and girls from Defensores del Chaco visit similar organisations in Argentina and other places with the goal of enriching both the visitors and the hosts. Participants share the experience of encountering new worlds and people, this helps them grow further.

Eighteen-year-old Gabriel Yago developed from being a team player to a coach. He is known to his friends as 'el gringo', the foreigner, because of his fair skin. He used to be a very shy boy. When he came to Defensores at the age of ten 'simply because he enjoyed football,' they helped him become friends with the other members. He is now an assistant and in charge of the group aged eight to nine.

"What I enjoy most is to teach the group about life lessons. I enjoy teaching more than the sport itself," said Gabriel. Many kids don't like school and Gabriel can relate to the feeling. He had to repeat two years of schooling as he wouldn't be allowed to stay at Defensores if he didn't study. "I was taught responsibility, respect and to listen to what elders advise," Gabriel recounts.

For Fabián it is democracy in action, the young taking over from the old and building a better society. Ideally he wants to see the youth taking the lead. Defensores aims to train the leaders of the future, people who can guide their communities even after the football game is over.

Back at the football ground the lively team completed the match and visited a nearby shop to play table football. They start talking about their idols, the footballers of Argentina, debating about which player is better, Crespo or Tevez? Of course they've seen Maradona in news clips and he is perceived a god. As they play the table football, they exchange memories of great goals seen on TV. Their arguments are passionate, but friendly and the atmosphere is jovial and upbeat.

The scene is an example of the Defensores del Chaco movement, football uniting youth to play simple games against each other. Through this development of the Football programme, they learn that opposition doesn't mean violence, and that leisure doesn't mean drugs, drinking, or stealing.

Photography: Football's Hidden Story/Peter Dench