The mid-afternoon sun hits the tin roofs of the concrete houses, built one on top of the other in the Petare slum of Caracas. Iván Torres rushes between tall walls capped with barbed wire, a soccer ball under one arm.
His 8-year-old son, Alexis, leads the way, kicking another ball, as children come out of other small streets that run like veins through the neighborhood and fall in behind. It’s the hour they have been waiting for all day.
“Soccer,” Torres said later, “is more than a game. It’s a way of life that builds character and makes children into men and women.”
Torres, now 41, started playing soccer when he was 7. He played in tournaments outside of Petare, where he grew up, and won many trophies. He dreamed of playing professionally but a lack of resources meant he became an electrician who played soccer on the side.
Still, he recognized that soccer had saved him from a life of crime and possibly even a violent death. He wanted the next generation of kids in Petare to have the same tools that soccer gave him. So he created his own informal soccer school. Other trainers did the same thing, and soon there were 24 informal community soccer schools in Petare that came together over the passion for soccer.
Today, these soccer schools are offering training — both in the game and in life — for more than 2,000 children in one of the roughest parts of Caracas. Torres and others say they hope soccer will help a generation of children stay away from crime and start them on a path to a productive life.
“I have dedicated myself to bringing kids into this program,” Torres said, “because I believe in it. I want to be useful to the community, and what better way to do that than through soccer.”
With the dire economic situation in Venezuela, the organization called Pasión Petare also recently added a meal program for the children, which for many of them is the only meal they’ll get all day.
Petare, considered by some to be one of the most dangerous slums in the world, is plagued with poverty, drugs, a high murder rate and chronic teen pregnancy. When Torres and the other trainers formed their schools, Petare didn’t have any grass soccer fields for the kids to play on. Their teams weren’t officially recognized so they couldn’t play in tournaments. They could only play informal games called caimaneras in empty dirt lots. Torres and the other trainers knew they needed to do more.
In 2010, the mayor of Petare, Carlos Ocariz, gave the groups a much-needed boost by allocating government funding for artificial turf on empty lots where they had been practicing. He also gave them official recognition so they could play in tournaments against established teams, and arranged ongoing financial support.
Pasión Petare, the umbrella group for all the schools, was created as an independent NGO so the soccer clubs wouldn’t be financially dependent on which political party was in office.
The goal of Pasión Petare is to use soccer as an equalizer, a way to transcend social barriers and to offer skills to overcome obstacles.
Maria Gabriela Rivas, the sports psychologist of Pasión Petare, said she believes soccer can teach children discipline, values, team work and other skills.
“We want soccer to be a project for life,” Rivas said. “We try to make sure children occupy their free time playing and practicing soccer.”
Rivas said she knows Torres is making a difference in the children’s lives. “You can see it in the eyes of the children,” she said. “Their passion, their desire, their motivation for life when they are playing. They arrive on time. Some of them live far up the hill and they walk on their own to be here on time.”
The downward spiral of Venezuela’s economy means more children are left on their own, too.
“I wish more parents would come, but they have to work or queue for hours in lines for food,” she said. “So children just show up after school and are all waiting for Iván when he arrives.”
Torres thinks soccer offers a critical focus for children who might otherwise have nothing productive to do. “They will become easy prey for criminals looking to recruit,” he says. “Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. We need to protect our children.”
When the soccer schools became officially recognized, Pasión Petare began helping the 24 community teams get sponsorships, materials for training, transportation for tournaments, uniforms — and shoes, Rivas said.
“We wish we could get a pair of shoes for all the kids,” she said, “but we have not been able [to] just yet.”
But broken or mismatched shoes aren’t obstacles for the kids who love the sport. “Look at my shoes,” said Ansony Osio, 16, laughing and pointing at his feet, each with a different kind of shoe. “One is from my brother and the other is mine. But I don’t care, I will get some one day.”
Trainers also benefit from Pasión Petare. They have access to courses on leadership, first aid or technical skills.
“I love the classes because they empower me, giving me more tools to be a better coach,” Torres said.
Torres takes his coaching as seriously as his day job, setting an example for players like Luis Acevedo, 16, nicknamed “el pollo,” or the chicken.
“I never miss a practice,” he said. “I have been playing since I was 9 years old with Iván, and for me, he is like part of my family, because since I was a kid he has always been there for me. Well not just for me, for all of us.”
Luis’ father had to go to Colombia a few months ago to find work as the Venezuelan economy continues to take a dive.
“Now I am the man in the house because my mom is pregnant and I have two younger brothers. ... When I come here to the field I don’t call it a game. For me it is a type of life, it is like a help. Without this soccer field, my future would have been very different. Many of my friends went to jail or are on drugs. Instead I am still in school and I will graduate this year, and I want to continue to study in the university and become a trainer like Iván.”
The bottoming-out economy has other effects on the program. A year ago, Torres’ longtime assistant trainer had to leave the country to find work. Some trainers reported children fainting on the field for lack of food, and there were fewer children coming to practice due to their parents’ inability to provide meals.
In October 2017, Pasión Petare launched a meal program called “Alimenta la Pasión,” or Feed the Passion, to give each child a plate of food when they showed up at practice, regardless of their ability to play.
With Torres agreeing to supervise meal times, and two volunteer cooks lined up, Pasión Petare began to look for food donations. An abandoned restaurant became their community kitchen.
After practice, the children wait for their meal. “We know that this meal will not guarantee their food needs,” Rivas explained, “but this way we make sure that they do not stop coming to play soccer due to lack of food.”
Another school has added a meal program as well, and Torres hopes there will be more.
Rivas said they worry about running out of food. “It’s hard to have food all the time. And sometimes Iván and the rest of us on the team worry about how to obtain enough private donations to keep the programs going in these communities where the need is so great and the positive effects of the program are so obvious,” she said.
One day recently, two new children appeared at the field, 10-year-old Paola Carrasco and her 11-year-old sister, Nicole.
Rivas said the difference for the two girls has “been like day and night. They smile, they have friends and they have become very social.”
Paola said she likes jumping the yellow obstacles that help condition the children for the game. “I can jump high and I am better than most boys. I miss my mom but I am happier here at the field.”