A boy, around 12, dreams of one day playing for his country in the World Cup. His young life is consumed by this passion. It is all he knows, all he cares to believe. The boy is still young enough to not fully understand the obstacles in his path. For he comes from a poor family in one of the poorest neighborhoods in a city where innocence is easily corrupted by the harsh realities of life in the slums. But this boy’s life remains rich because of dreams. Dreams that go undeterred regardless of the lack of opportunities afforded. Life for the boy will be difficult but the goal always remains the same. To proudly wear his country’s colors on the grandest stage in soccer.
He rises early, sleep has always had a way of wasting his energy. His younger brothers and sisters lay peacefully on the mattress beside him. He is careful not to wake his family. His neighborhood is quiet now but that was not the case hours before when the early morning darkness was littered with the disruptive sounds of motorcycles and wild dogs, the soundtrack to his slumber. His younger siblings do not yet understand the pain and loss attached to these sounds but the boy remembers that time not too long ago when their mother became the innocent victim of a drive by shooting. In an instant her life was taken by a stray bullet.
The government says murders are down but missing persons are up so you do the math. Just the other day a car parked directly outside the boy’s apartment contained a dead body in the trunk plugged with so many bullet holes that is could have only been the outcome of a drug deal gone bad. Or an over zealous police officer charged with maintaining order in the slums. Either way, since the death of his mother the boy and his family had to choose sides and the decision was easy. The boy’s father hides from these memories out of duty to his children. Night shifts in this city provide more danger than dollars so the boy must work too.Before he departs for the day he makes sure to grab his soccer ball, a constant reminder of his true purpose in life.
The boy exits down the stairs and steps out onto the severely sloped sidewalk. Below, the city skyline pushing past the morning mist. Newly constructed hotels and restaurants nestled between the clouds. Monuments to the tourists who traveled down to the southern hemisphere to watch a soccer tournament. Up the hill and all around nothing but ramshackle tin roofs and repurposed metal siding, reminders that this boy’s life is a true tale of two cities. About the only thing that floats its way downtown from the slums is raw sewage, polluting some of the most popular, majestic beaches in the entire world yet you won’t find this fun fact on the back of any postcard.
Dribbling past the carnage of despair the boy begins his work. Couriering messages for local drug dealers is not how most children would envision spending their days but the little money made is enough to help this boy’s family survive. A boy his age should be in school but who has time for a proper education when there needs to be food on the table.
The boy still dreams of one day playing for his country in the World Cup. But his country has done very little to earn his, or thousands of other young boys and girls loyalty and obedience. Hosting this summer’s World Cup was just the latest in a string of negligent decision committed by a group of bureaucrats who have no real idea how bad life is in the slums of the city. Those billions of dollars spent on building stadiums and hotels could have been used instead to create the type of infrastructure necessary to provide more people in the country with an opportunity to improve their lives. This boy doesn’t yet understand that very few will one day develop the kind of talent and fortune to wear the yellow jersey so synonymous with soccer success. Instead, what he and countless others require are basic services like sanitation, health care and education which are the only things that can promote sustainable social and economic stability in his country
It’s early afternoon and the boy has reached his favorite part of the day. The field rests behind lock and key. The only green grass in the neighborhood controlled by the local cartel and for use only on special occasions. But the boy knows a way in and the drug dealers, his bosses, look the other way. Call it a reward for a job well done. Now everyday the boy and his soccer ball step onto the stage and live that dream.
The boy crosses onto the pitch right as the afternoon shadows start to make their way across the green grass. No television cameras. No fans. No empty promises of millions of dollars in revenue for the country. Just a dream and a soccer ball.
The boy dribbles up and down the field executing the moves that he rehearses from dusk till dawn along the narrow dirt roads and dark alleyways of his neighborhood. ‘One day’, he says, ‘one day the people of my country will come to watch me play and I will bring us all glory’.
Today, this small arena, like all the million dollar edifices built around the country for the World Cup, is empty and as the sun tires, the boys energy remains high. But reality sets in and he must return to work.
With his time at the park over, the boy continues on his journey through the neighborhood. He is a messenger, carrying only information and a soccer ball. His employers value his discretion, the boy is doing what he needs to do to survive. He sees and hears things that would give most boys his age nightmares. Drugs, guns and death. Yet this boy only dreams. Help will not come for the children of his neighborhood. The boy understands which is why the single tool of his trade remains tethered at all times to his left and right foot. If the government won’t help then he must help himself become the champion his country deserves.
The boy returns home, tired and happy his siblings sleeping peacefully on the floor. A note from his father carefully placed on the kitchen counter asking his eldest child to care for his younger brother and sisters until he returns in the morning. The boy rolls his soccer ball back towards the front door and gently slips under the covers next to his family. His eyes remain open as he replays the day’s events over and over in his mind. What a thrill it was to dribble up and down that field, to imagine what it must be like to play alongside the greatest players in the world representing his country, a country that has done nothing for him. A dream come true for this boy. Sleep will have to wait.