By María Gabriela Córdova
About 150,000 children from throughout Panama have taken part in the Neighborhood World Cup soccer tournament since 2001.
PANAMA CITY, Panama – Héctor Brands is using an unorthodox method to fight violence: soccer.
Brands, the founder and director of the NGO Movimiento Nueva Generación (Movement for New Generation), has organized the Neighborhood World Cup, a national soccer championship that promotes a culture of peace and healthy living through soccer in the Central American nation.
“It’s more expensive to keep prisoners in jail than to give children tools to prevent crime,” Brands said. “Our goal is to provide young people with principles and moral values. We want them to know that it doesn’t matter what neighborhood they were born in – they aren’t condemned to stay there.”
About 7,000 children between the ages of 3 and 15 from 466 teams participated in Panama’s 2013 Neighborhood World Cup, which was held from January to February. The US$400,000 to fund the tournament came from the Ministry of Social Development (MIDES) and private companies.
The project has been so successful that several of its participants have gone on to play professionally, such as Alberto Quintero of Chorrillo F.C. and Aníbal Godoy, who plays for Argentina’s Godoy Cruz.
About 150,000 children have played in the tournament since its inception in 2001, according to Brands.
“I have a lot of new friends and I know that I have to study to get ahead,” said Jarmi de la Rossa, 13, who played in this year’s event. “It’s not just about soccer because you also get an education.”
Before the matches, the children participate in discussions on violence prevention given by the National Police and members of Club Activo 20-30 and Movimiento Nueva Generación, which all work with young people in Panama.
“We have constant monitoring,” Brands said. “We want to know what they do before, during and after the Neighborhood World Cup. It’s a free event for them and the only requirement is that they have to listen to the violence prevention talks given before every match.”
The tournament started when Brands, based on his own experience, realized how soccer could keep children away from crime. In 1995 when he was 17, he was addicted to drugs and spent 19 months at Panama City’s CREA de Chilibre rehabilitation clinic.
“I had lost my home and I don’t know what happened, but after 13 months of being there, I felt like I was being given a second chance,” he said. “I made a promise to God that if he helped me get out of this situation, I would do something to help prevent others from suffering the same fate.”
That’s’ why he started organizing youth soccer matches during the summer. Quickly, these inter-neighborhood matches, which originated in El Chorrillo and San Felipe, branched out to other areas, such as Santa Ana, Calidonia and Curundú.
In 2001, he organized the first tournament, which came to be known as the Mundial del Barrio (Neighborhood World Cup).
“In addition to being the most popular neighborhood sport, it’s the cheapest,” he said. “To play soccer, all you need is a ball. Any street can become the field.”
Panama is home to 201 gangs, made up of about 7,500 between the ages of 8 and 29 who are involved in narco-trafficking, kidnappings, armed robberies, extortions and murders, according to Panama’s National System of Criminal Statistics (SIEC).
Young people are recruited and ordered by gangs to commit the majority of the crimes, including the most violent ones such as murder, according to Erly Miranda, the head of the Panamanian Police’s Service for Children and Adolescents.
“All efforts to prevent children and young people from becoming involved in crime are important and positive because it keeps them away from gangs and promotes a peaceful society,” she said.
Brands said he quickly realized that he would have to do his job permanently, leading him to create the Movimiento Nueva Generación in 2001, which seeks to offer opportunities in education, sports and culture to Panamanian children.
In 2006, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) offered its support and the inter-neighborhood championships were known as the UNICEF Cup, until 2009.
The success of the initiative motivated UNICEF and Movimiento Nueva Generación to exchange experiences with similar organizations in Guatemala and Brazil, according to Una McCauley, a UNICEF representative in Panama.
Since 2010, the tournament has been held nationwide and broadcast on TV throughout Panama.
“I never imagined that something so small would become one of the NGOs with the strongest community base in Panama,” Brands said.