BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina is home to more than 45 million people. The country has steadily been growing and modernizing, pushing its way into the 21st century. Argentina, however, has a crisis on its hands. According to a 2018 UNICEF study, 48% of Argentine youth are poor or living in poverty. This is the equivalent of nearly 6.3 million children in the South American nation. This figure does not solely account for monetary poverty but also considers factors such as living conditions, access to sanitation and education. Concerns surrounding the “sheer magnitude” of impoverished people have led to predictions that the problem is only worsening. The Argentine youth are falling behind, but one club, Villas Unidas, is trying to help.
Villas Unidas Football Club
These people, however, and especially the Argentine youth, have not been wholly forgotten. Where government relief programs end is where the private sector, non-profits working toward reducing the impact of nationwide poverty begin. One such program turns Argentina’s national pastime, football, into a unique program to help educate and support Argentine kids living below the poverty line.
In 2019, Argentina’s world-cup winning coach César Menotti helped support the founding of the football club Villas Unidas located on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. This club not only focuses on the development of young players but also the social integration of poor children. For these kids, football is their escape for the pressures of home and school and a chance to connect with friends. Argentina is famed for producing some of the best players in the world, many of whom started out as “‘street footballers” much like these kids. Now, through a club specially designed for them, these kids have a chance to turn football into a path towards scholarships and even careers.
Youth Football Clubs Close Due to Coronavirus
Unfortunately, just like everything else, the regularly scheduled season for Villas Unidas has had to close its doors due to the global outbreak of the coronavirus. Argentina was far from the hardest-hit South American country; however, it is still instituting strict measures to ensure the number of reported cases do not rise. These regulations have been met with hesitancy and the infection rate reflects that. Overall cases have increased “fivefold since late May.” As of June 26, lockdown measures were extended. It is unclear when programs, like that of Villas Unidas, will begin again.
In an interview with the Buenos Aires Times, 16-year-old Tiago Ruíz Díaz commented on how he’s been feeling since COVID-19 drove him inside and away from the game that he loves.“This pandemic has ruined everything,” Díaz said. However, not everyone is being as cautious as Díaz. After several months since football across Argentina was canceled, people are beginning to venture out of their homes once more. In fact, many people have been reportedly taking to the streets to set up illegal games, which have been partially responsible for the high spike of coronavirus cases among players and spectators. Still, games continue because some believe that “they’re a risk worth taking.”
The absence of football in Argentina is not, however, where this story ends. While the clubs are not currently able to help keep impoverished children engaged and active, they have discovered a new way to stay connected with the communities during this trying time. At one of the old practice facilities, Jorge Rocaro, club president, has organized volunteers to create their own soup kitchen. On a field where 150 kids usually practice football, Rocaro is serving “meat and potato stew in two giant pots.” This community outreach is extremely important to food-insecure families in the region, especially while the coronavirus is still seeing mass infection rates.
According to Rocaro, “Our club has become a source of nourishment so families can take a plate of food home.” With coronavirus cases continuing to rise, it may be some time before these football clubs can reopen. While children may still be waiting for the official reopening of practices and games, thanks to Rocaro and small football clubs like Villas Unidas, when it does happen, they will be around to enjoy the game once again.
– Elizabeth Price