Soccer helps some young Hondurans escape the gangs

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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) - From the dusty soccer pitch, 11-year-old Maynor Ayala can see two ways out of the gang-controlled slums: on a professional soccer team, or in a cheap coffin.

Maynor is euphoric after scoring a goal for the first time in weeks, and he briefly allows himself to imagine going to the World Cup one day.

But then his boyish smile fades into hard talk. “My cousin was shot here on the field,” Maynor says, miming a pistol with his thumb and index finger.

“Remember the taxi driver they executed here a while ago?” asks his 14-year-old friend, Marvin Cruz.

“We also went to see a body cut in pieces over there by the bridge,” Maynor adds.

Their coach listens with despair. Luis Lopez, 45, who uses a wheelchair because of a bicycle accident over a decade ago, is working the kids hard, hoping the discipline of sport will keep them out of the gangs that dominate much of Tegucigalpa. His threadbare soccer program is modest compared to the challenges these children face: the pull of the streets, violence, poverty and drugs. But as for slum children from Brazil to Botswana, the game is also a lifeline.

Maynor, Marvin and others on the pitch give the coach hope against the reality of pot smokers on the sidelines of the pitch and lost souls like 14-year-old Antony who don’t stay in school.

Luisito is teaching boys and girls to play soccer, knowing that the real game is to stay alive.

Maynor may not know the statistics - that a child his age is shot to death every four days in Honduras, and that the odds only get worse as you get older. But he knows that violent death is common, and that the corpses offer a glimpse of his future if he moves toward the gangs.

He goes to see the bodies, he says, “because you think that next time it could be you there.”

Maynor’s neighborhood is called Progreso, a name that mocks its dirt roads, open sewage canals and crowded houses. It is surrounded by gang territories and an iron fence its 100 families put up to keep out criminals.

Even so, children hide inside after dark.

The soccer pitch is built on a graveyard of neighbors who were buried alive when Hurricane Mitch collapsed the hills in 1998. Jose de la Paz Herrera, known as “Chelato Ucles,” the godfather of Honduran soccer, stepped in with funds to help equip it.

Now 74, he managed the first Honduran team to reach the World Cup - to Spain in 1982 - and he still combs the slums in search of talent like Emilio Izaguirre, 28, one of just five Hondurans playing for a European league.

Izaguirre, who lived in a neighborhood like Progreso, one of the many battlefields between the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs, competed in the World Cup four years ago and will be on the pitch for Honduras again at the Cup starting next month in Brazil.

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