Coronavirus puts poor Argentines’ football dreams on hold

Deobra Rey

BUENOS AIRES (AP) — The apartment blocks of Fort Apache are emblazoned with murals of Carlos Tevez, the superstar forward for Argentina’s most popular pro football team and its national squad.

“I come from a place where they said it was impossible to succeed,’’ one mural reads, and Tiago Ruíz Díaz thought of those words all the time as he moved from his youth club in one of Buenos Aires’ poorest neighbourhoods to the second-division club Almagro. Success like Tevez’s seemed obtainable for the 16-year-old midfielder. Until coronavirus came to Argentina.

Football has been cancelled for more than 80 days now, with no restart in sight, cutting off thousands of young players in Argentina’s poorest neighbourhoods from what many felt was their only shot at a better life.

“This pandemic ruined everything,” Díaz said. “It’s terrible being like this, shut up at home.”

Argentina is far from the worst-hit country in Latin America — the toll here pales in comparison to the disasters unfolding in Brazil, Chile and Peru, among others. But the impact on the youngest players in the football-crazy country shows the subtle long-term damage being wrought by the pandemic outside the most affected areas.

A child plays football in a park near a mural of football player Carlos Tevez in the Fuerte Apache neighbourhood, where Tevez played as a youth in Buenos Aires, Argentina. PHOTOS: AP
Nicolas Suarez, 16, controls the ball as he poses for a photo on the football field of the Fraga neighbourhood, empty amid the COVID-19 lockdown in Buenos Aires

Worried the lost time is costing them shots at professional careers, some young players are giving up and succumbing to the temptations of drugs. Others desperate to stay in shape are playing for money in dangerous illegal games that caused outbreaks of COVID-19 among players, spectators and people who live near football fields.

“There are a lot of dangers and temptations in the street. The kids sought refuge here and now they can’t anymore,” said Daniel López, president of the Santa Clara club where both Tevez and Tiago started playing.

Santa Clara had 170 boys and girls in training until coronavirus came to Argentina. Now, Lopez turned the club into a makeshift soup kitchen where volunteers cook meals in two huge pots and offer food to families who live nearby.

On a recent afternoon, Nicolás Suárez walked crestfallen onto a bare field in one of Buenos Aires’ poorest neighbourhoods. Two rusted metal arcs testified to its former life as a football field. It’s become a wasteland covered in weeds and trash.

The 16-year-old midfielder was picked this year as one of the most promising young players in Buenos Aires and was set to join a team that would play games across the country, showing off his talents to scouts from Argentina’s most important professional teams.

He dreamed of leaving Villa Fraga, north of the capital, and becoming a star like Tevez, Manchester City striker Sergio Agüero or even legend Diego Maradona.

But coronavirus put his plans on hold.

To stay in shape and earn some money, Suárez and other athletes defy the legal ban and play games for money on a field hidden among the houses of Villa Fraga. Each player chips in a small amount and the winning team divides the pot. In a slum of 2,700 people with 30 diagnosed cases of the coronavirus, only some players wear masks during games that last up to three hours, he said.

An informal “lightning” game several weeks ago between players from Villa Azul and Villa Itatí, Agüero’s hometown, was responsible for some 300 new cases among players, spectators and people living nearby, officials said.

But the adults overseeing the illegal games said they’re a risk worth taking.

“I’m more scared of them getting hooked on drugs than catching coronavirus,” said Iván Mora, who coaches Suárez and about 100 other young players in the club called Playón Chacarita de Fraga. “If they aren’t doing anything, the guys can get into drugs.”’

As Argentina passed through repeated economic crises, Buenos Aires and other cities become dotted with roughly 4,400 “misery towns” of brick and sheet-metal homes built on empty land without running water or sewer systems.

The towns are home to more than four million people, almost all at high risk of coronavirus because of the closely packed conditions and poor sanitary conditions.

Argentina has about 77 cases per 100,000 people, many times fewer than Chile, Peru and nearly a dozen other countries in the region. The relatively low figure is credited in large part to a strict quarantine put in place by President Alberto Fernández on March 20. At the same time, the economic damage from the disease and anti-virus measures has been severe — the Argentine government said the number of people needing food aid in the country has gone from eight million to 11 million.

The Argentina office of UNICEF, the United Nations Childrens Fund, says child poverty in Argentina could reach 58.6 per cent by the end of the year.

Football professionals are worried about the effect that’s having on young players’ health and the future of the game.

“It’s going to impact their physiques without a doubt and that will be reflected in the game,” said Luis Zubeldía, who coaches for Lanus, the professional club that’s feeding children in poor neighbourhoods. “Football players will keep coming, because it’s a path to economic salvation for many families, but the question is how many.”

A few blocks from the field where Maradona played for the first time, Jorge Rocaro supervises volunteers cooking a meat and potato stew in two giant pots at Club August 16 in Villa Caraza in a southern suburb of Buenos Aires. Normally, 150 children practise the game there.

“Our club has become a source of nourishment so families can take a plate of food home,” said Rocaro, the club president.

On the banks of the Riachuelo, one of the world’s most polluted rivers, Caraza is home to families of informal workers who make a living with day labour like collecting recyclables, construction or sewing piecework, all seriously affected by the pandemic.

“Sport is a fundamental outlet for the kids,’’ Rocaro said. “They get up, eat breakfast and go to school. In the afternoon they play football and get ready for the weekend games. The year is half lost already. It’s very worrying.”