MANCHESTER, United Kingdom, Sep 28 – Brazilian World Cup winner Gilberto Silva knows what it is like to grow up without money, but admits he cried when he heard first hand the harrowing story of one homeless child.
“I came from a poor background but at least I had my family around me,” said the 39-year-old, a former midfielder who won the World Cup in 2002 and was also a key member of the Arsenal side known as the “Invincibles” that went through a season unbeaten in the Premier League.
“Of course there were challenges, but nothing compared to the children I met. One chat with an Indian youngster reduced me to tears.”
Silva, who is now technical director at Greek side Panathinaikos, met the children at the 2014 Street Child World Cup in Brazil, an initiative that hopes to banish any stigma attached to children living on the streets.
John Wroe, of Street Child United, is preparing for the charity’s third world cup, in Russia in 2018, and said homeless children gained feelings of self-worth through football.
“We can through our world cup help break down barriers,” he said at the SoccerEx Global Convention in Manchester.
“It allows their voices to be heard on a level playing field. Instead of being referred to in Colombia as ‘the plague’ or in Vietnam as the ‘dust of life’, they become people when they play football.
“Playing football, they can say, ‘I am somebody’.”
Wroe, who says the UN estimate of 150 million children living on the streets globally would make them the ninth-largest country in the world, believes children need three basic rights.
“They want protection from violence, which was shockingly reflected at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil when 14-year-old Rodrigo Celton was murdered a fortnight before the final,” he said.
“The right to have their births registered — if you don’t officially exist, how can you be protected? And access to education — some want to be nurses, lawyers etc., but how can they if they are barred from receiving an education?”
Wroe said his world cup — in the same year as the real thing — gives street children a rare global platform.
“The 2014 world cup had an audience of 200 million globally and it sparked really positive messages,” he said.
“We had people like Prince William and Pope Francis sending us messages.”
Wroe cited the example of Tanzanian youngster Sadaq as an instance of the Street Child World Cup “opening doors that would otherwise remain closed”.
“He met with the minister of sport ahead of the 2014 world cup and he told Sadaq, ‘I’m giving you a national flag because you are representing our country, you achieved this’.
“They went on to win the tournament (beating Burundi 3-1) and you know what? They returned home and were given an open-top bus ride and welcomed into the parliament, this in a country that rarely qualifies for the Africa Cup of Nations.”
– ‘Boys with Kalashnikovs’ –
The Brazilian Silva saw the charitable side of football when he was at Arsenal, which is renowned for its work in its community in north London and has engaged with Save the Children on several projects abroad — in a refugee camp in Iraq and an education project in Beijing.
But he says the Street Child World Cup offers something different through football.
“The world cup showed the power a simple ball can have. It can transform lives. I could see that with the kids. People paid them attention,” he said.
Wroe cited one example of the dangerous challenges facing children — and how they are being slowly overcome.
“One of the Brazilian girls who lifted the 2014 world cup, Drika, created a ‘Safe Space’ for a pitch in the midst of a favela,” he said.
“The surrounding walls were littered with bullet holes. When some of the boys turned up to play they came armed with Kalashnikovs.
“They were told, ‘No, you cannot bring those onto the pitch, leave them behind’. They played and you should have seen the stack of various guns piled up behind the goal!
“But Drika, who has impressed many people with her project and was invited to Dallas by (Olympic great) Michael Johnson this year, is using football to protect her community.”