Why I quit the best job in the world
“Without soccer I would never have got out of here. Without soccer I would be dead”. The kid’s bright yellow uniform stood out in stark contrast from our surroundings – a stinking, smoking wasteland of filth and garbage that extended in all directions. He wiped tears away as he spoke; “I don’t want to think back to the time when I lived here”.
We were standing in the middle of a rubbish dump in Hulene, on the outskirts of Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. I was there to make a documentary for the BBC and we were fascinated by the story of ‘Futescola’, a project that combines soccer and education for some of the poorest kids in the city.
Two of those kids offered to take us on a tour of their life before Futescola, which is how we ended up ankle-deep in refuse listening to a boy of 16 talk about how he used to make a living collecting scraps of garbage to sell and eat. Now he had a new life – thanks to soccer.
Of course we all love this kind of story. The rags-to-riches fairytale is one of the oldest in the book; whether you think of Michael Essien playing barefoot in Ghana, Luka Modric learning the game in a refugee camp or Steven Pienaar doing likewise in a South African township. Brazil in particular, from Garrincha to Ronaldinho, has made it into an industry.
But the sad truth is that for every one who makes it there are thousands – hundreds of thousands – of youngsters who are just as passionate, even just as skillful, but for whom the challenges are just too great. I once interviewed Steven Pienaar’s old coach at Ajax Cape Town who told me of a teammate they identified as the better prospect than the future Everton star – but who drifted into a local gang and ended up dead in a knife-fight at the age of 17.
The young man who wore his bright Futescola jersey so proudly was never going to be a professional soccer player – not even close – though that was all he dreamed about night and day. But more and more organizations are now using the power of that dream to inspire, engage, cajole, even near-bribe young men and women from some of the world’s toughest communities into educational programs – and keep them there.
That day on the rubbish dump in Hulene was something of a turning point for me, too. All things considered I had things pretty good – as a sports journalist I got to watch and talk about football for a living, which for a boy from the North of England is as close to perfect a job as you can dare to wish for. But that day in Mozambique I started to think about another football, a football far away from the multi-million dollar deals, the lucrative endorsements, the WAGs and the stupid haircuts, a football that had real power.
From then on I was obsessed. I made documentaries about soccer teaching children how to avoid landmines in Cambodia, practice safe sex in Lesotho, stay off the streets in Istanbul, clean up pollution in Nairobi and many more. To get me closer I quit my perfect job and joined streetfootballworld, a global non-profit that links over 100 of these organizations in 60 countries and which aims to drive forward the whole emerging field of soccer for social change.
Now with the third half I am hoping we can open more eyes to the incredible power of football to change the world. I hope you’ll join us.