Sports

The players who dodged poverty by dint of muddy boots and goals

While U.S. soccer players enjoy a smooth professional ride, for the rest of the continent the sport is a way out of poverty and hunger, as was the case for Alexis Sánchez, Sergio Aguero and Juan Carlos Cuadrado.
5 Jun 2016 – 8:43 PM EDT

He ran like a soul possessed. One by one, he shrugged off rivals seeking to take his legs from under him.

All his trick moves, feints and jinks. he acquired dribbling stones with his feet through muddy puddles in Tocopilla in northern Chile.

Alexis Sánchez was born with a love for the ball, but what he exceeded in talent, his family lacked in money.

The Chilean star is one of the many Latin American players who escaped hunger and poverty by hugging a soccer ball. Sánchez had no money for shoes, so, he washed as many cars as he could to pay for them. The money was to eat, but also so that the kicks of his friends did not hurt so much.

In South America the majority of players are born into difficult economic cicumstances, some very tough. That could lead them to substitute a shot at goal for a gunshot, stealing in order to eat or for those luxuries that poverty does not afford. But love of the game almost always surpasses all that.


A string of Latin American players are recognized for having overcome deprivation and for whom soccer turned their lives around. It's in the favelas (slums) and pasture fields where scouts often find future talent for the big teams such as Barcelona or Real Madrid. It is down at the grass roots where they may find the next tenant of a Milan mansion or a Paris penthouse.

Sergio Aguero says it was only when he began to shine in the lower teams at Argentine club Independiente, and got his first pay check, that he finally managed to put a decent meal in his stomach. Years earlier, known as 'Kun' after his favorite childhood cartoon, had to overcome the hard reality of life in one of the poorest and most dangerous barrios in Buenos Aires.


Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, the lightning fast right winger with Juventus has one of the most tragic stories imaginable. Born in Colombia's dangerous northwestern province of Urabá, his childhood was plagued by drug trafficking and violence.

Cuadrado fled his home, and poverty, after witnessing the murder of his father as he hid under a bed.

North and South America are poles apart when it comes to soccer, as in many things. In the United States, for example, players go through a different process to become professionals. While they still have to earn that Ferrari or a mansion in Beverly Hills, they usually get to attend good schools and are better equipped overall to tackle life.

Unlike their Latin American counterparts, U.S. players often go all the way through high school or university.

Take the case of Javier Hernández in Mexico. Known as 'Chicharito' (Little Pea), he comes from a footballing family, and stunned his countrymen when he gave a flawless speech in English after being signed by Manchester United. Chicharito was about to hang up his boots to continue his college studies. His bachelor's degree in business administration now looks nice hanging on a wall of his family home.


In the end it doesn't really matter what condition a player is born into if he can dribble a soccer ball close to his feet. The lack of nice shoes, or generous helpings of food, or growing up with violence and dodging threats, are mostly untold stories kept in the glove compartments of the latest model sports car that they pull up in at stadiums where millions of fans hail them.

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