Egypt in Street Child World Cup with a goal that extends beyond the posts

The chance to play in a global tournament has given these Egyptian children hope to achieve great things once they return from Brazil to their normal lives, writes Gary Meenaghan in Rio de Janeiro.

There are 19 countries taking part in this week’s Street Child World Cup in Rio de Janeiro and most teams consist of nine children, a coach and a couple of social workers. Photographs courtesy of Yara Saeed & Karam Gamal El Din
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Youssef is a 15-year-old Egyptian with dimples and dark eyes and a smile warmer than the desert sun.

Four years ago, he was sleeping on the littered streets of Cairo, making shoes for 12 hours a day and US$4.50 (Dh16) a week.

Today he is in Brazil, captaining his country at the Street Child World Cup. He is giggling so giddily that at one point during our conversation he falls off his chair.

Youssef is, like all 230 children taking part in this 10-day tournament, proof that sport can rehabilitate; that football can provide a greater goal to aim for.

During the past year, Youssef and his teammates have learnt not only how to play the beautiful game, but also what it feels like to be recognised.

They have attained birth certificates, passports and visas, and they have met some of the most famous names in football.

“Before this journey started, I never imaged that I would meet Pele and Mohamed Aboutreika and Gilberto Silva,” Youssef said after his team beat South Africa 2-0 on a pitch on the tropical outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

“I never imagined I could one day travel to Brazil. Now I will work even harder to improve my life. Now this has all happened, I am looking forward to telling my friends about it – and especially about how we won.”

Simply making it to Brazil could be seen as a victory of sorts for the Egyptian team.

There are 19 countries taking part in this week’s event in Rio de Janeiro and most teams consist of nine children, a coach and a couple of social workers.

Egypt have travelled with a group of more than 25, including nine boys, two girls, five coaches and nine representatives from three non-government organisations (NGOs).

“The Egyptian dynamic is very difficult,” said Karim Hosni, the head coach.

Hosni calls the relationship between the coaches and the NGOs “an invisible structure brought together in the end by football”. He said that because of bureaucracy the Brazil trip often appeared like it might not happen.

“We never doubted we would be here, but the reason we are here is belief more than anything,” he said.

“On paper, we still weren’t sure until even last week, but the belief never went. If one route didn’t work, we would persevere and try a different one.”

Hosni, an investment banker and part-time football coach at the American University of Cairo, first heard of the Street Child World Cup at a conference in London in August 2011.

He initiated contact with the relevant parties to explore the possibility of sending a team and, together with Mohamed Khedr, Morad Hakim and Mohamed Abou Hussein, brought on board the three separate NGOs – Hope Village, Face and Ana El Masry (which translates as “I, The Egyptian”).

The lack of definitive figures is such that, depending on who you ask, the number of children living on Egypt’s streets ranges from 10,000 to three million.

While the numbers are in doubt, the direction they are headed is not. The population of street children is growing, a fact not helped by the 2011 revolution, which deteriorated living conditions and saw homeless youths being blamed for violence and killings.

“They were used a lot for political reasons by a number of parties,” Hosni said.

“A lot of people were using street children to do their dirty work; brainwashing for money. This has increased the stigma, the negative perception.”

Youssef said he was arrested on his way to work at the shoe factory during the start of the revolution. Police accused him of being paid to cause trouble.

He was taken to a juvenile detention centre and then to Ana El Masry, the NGO. During the past three years, he has been taught housekeeping and cooking and been given Arabic and English lessons.

In October 2012, he joined a group of about 50 children of all ages from across the three different shelters.

It was the first training session for Team Egypt and quickly descended into chaos: too many children, too large an age range, too many disputes between those from East and West Cairo.

From then on, the sessions were split by region and only for children between 14 and 16 years of age.

Training was tough and the trainers dedicated.

“Even on the day [former president Mohamed] Morsi was deposed, we still held training,” Hosni said. “We never cancelled – we were determined to get here.”

By February this year, the pool had been reduced to 14 players; last month the final nine were chosen. Youssef, alongside three friends from the shelter – Boudi, Adham and Khalid – made the final cut. Khalid, who shifted around Cairo after his mother was sentenced to 15 years in jail for drug dealing, almost never made it to Brazil.

“All the kids have lived on the street for at least a couple of years and have been in a shelter for at least a year,” Hosni said.

“Throughout our journey, Khalid left the shelter, but wanted to continue playing football with us. We said he had to go back to the shelter first and he did. This is when the project proves its worth.”

Malak El Ayouty is in charge of the team’s online presence and fundraising initiatives. She said an estimated £300,000 Egyptian (Dh157,000) were generated through the sale of designer jewellery, woven bracelets, custom-made cupcakes and personal donations.

“Right up until our last tournament on March 1, we didn’t have enough money to travel,” she said.

Yet, as the tournament approached, everything fell into place and the group eventually caught an Emirates Airline flight to Rio de Janeiro via Dubai.

When they arrived at Galeao International Airport, they were warmly greeted by teams from South Africa, Tanzania, Pakistan, Kenya and the Philippines.

Boudi, smaller than the rest of the team and with a grin so infectious it should come with a warning, is regarded as Team Egypt’s secret weapon.

The 14 year old has spent the week making friends and charming everyone he meets, including the Egyptian Ambassador for Brazil, who made a surprise visit on Tuesday evening.

“Boudi disappears and returns with gifts and T-shirts from other teams,” Hosni said. “We hope he has left a lasting impression on our next opponents.”

For now though, Boudi is just enjoying his new surroundings, fascinated by the vertiginous green mountains and abundant plants and flowers.

When he gets home, he said he is looking forward to telling his friends all about his adventure. “I have enjoyed the trip very much. We have had a different taste of a different country in every sense: different food, different culture. The only different thing that is bothering me is the mosquitoes,” he said with a giggle.

“When I get home, I want to work harder than ever and become a businessman. I hope to build a legacy, so that when I am no longer living, people remember me as someone who has contributed to humanity. It will be difficult, but God will help me achieve my dreams.”

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