Thursday, 8 August 2013

From rags to riches: does simplicity serve as football's helping hand?

Annually, a fundraising, objective match featuring football legends like the Brazilian Ronaldo and Zinédine Zidane, groups together some of the world’s greatest players and casts a stellar line-up for the "Match Against Poverty", which aids over 27 developing countries worldwide. In 2012, it took place on 19 December at the Gremio Arena in Porto Alegre, Brazil; over 50,000 thousand fans swarmed to the arena to witness Ronaldo's team narrowly beat Zidane's 3-2.

But what if, ironically, despite these efforts, poverty crafts greater footballers?

At the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), statistical information is collated in order to measure the poverty levels of millions and millions of people. Countries like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and so on are monitored by ECLAC, which discovered that in 2012, approximately 167 million people, or around 28.8% of Latin American and the Caribbean, were living in poverty.

Now, poverty is a serious issue tackled by a multitude of international organisations, and the horrendous problems it brings are there for the world to see; Comic Relief opens the eyes of the public every year, for example. Although, throughout the shanty towns, the favelas, the penniless communities and the sewage, a way of passing the time among children of all ages and different gender remains constant.

"As a boy, I played football barefoot in the streets with a ball made of old socks." Pelé or Edson Arantes do Nascimento, needs minimal introduction to any football fan. His astounding career, found in grainy montages on YouTube, is legend in the world of football, and the Brazilian's raw talent makes countless greats since his playing days look average.

Pelé was an astonishing player, however he was not nurtured from an early age by coaches with top-quality facilities like the youth set up in England and Germany today, for example. Partly, that was to do with the time in which he grew up, however it is interesting that, left to his own devices with other children who founded and devised independent teams and competitions (Pelé's childhood team were named 'The Shoeless Ones'), he developed in such a way that vastly contributed to his outstanding career, and gave him the skills that he would use to help his club and country to international fame and success. He grew up with minimal advantages, and yet his childhood is an integral, if not the stand-out factor for his incredible career.

Brazil as a nation is a fine example of this correlation which is simply impossible to ignore, given their glamorous history of football and recent FIFA Confederations Cup victory which runs alongside the country's many slums, favelas and poor conditions. The nation lives and breathes the sport; journalist Alex Bellos, author of Futebol - A Brazilian Way of Life, puts the obsession down to the late abolition of slavery in the 19th century, and a lack of positive, historic symbols thereafter.

With little to aspire to, the children of Brazil's favelas are likely to view football as their only way out of a life of poverty and deprivation. What makes quality players is practice, and the endless practice comes from the determination not to have a life controlled by drug dealers and crime. It is an opportunity for bonding in a world of football and team spirit rather than gangs and crime; there is a chance for expression, elation and creativity rather than accepting the poor, depressing quality of life they are born into. It is no wonder the people of Brazil's favelas, and Brazil as a nation, have football written into their DNA.

Pelé and his countrymen, however, are not alone. On the same continent, Diego Maradona was born in 1960 and raised in a shanty-town by parents who were both illegitimate children. A generation later, Jorge Horácio Messi, a factory steel worker, and Celia María Cuccittini, a part-time cleaner, could not afford hormone growth treatment for their child, Lionel. Only FC Barcelona could pay the fees. There are proportional yet similar examples across time, and all around the world. It is too large a possibility not to question it: does the quality of football as a sport benefit at the hands of simplicity, disadvantage and poverty?

Thousands of players worldwide, many of them being high-profile and world class, have come from underprivileged homes and lifestyles. A couple of extreme examples of the ‘rags to riches’ story are courtesy of Bébé and Nani, the Portuguese duo from Manchester United. Bébé was discovered competing for a Portuguese homeless team (he did not actually play in the Homeless World Cup), and Nani, whose parents abandoned him and left him to be raised with nine siblings by his aunt, played football regularly as a child with his brother who taught him about the game. His first club, Real Massamá, were able to provide him with money, food and helped him obtain ID and a passport.

In proportion, it is worth scratching the rather shiny surface of powerful countries like England to see how this theory continues, and if anything unexpected lies underneath the reflected gold. Of course, the traditional 'working class' is hardly what is defined as poverty, and therefore they may, in comparison to the wealthy, upper class members of society, live simpler lives. In a developed, superior country like England, and Britain as a whole, there is a small link to the poverty-stricken livelihoods that people experience day in, day out in third world countries.

And that link, ultimately, is football.

Now, this similarity may not be complicated. It may be a result of lower-income families having a lower amount of resources to stimulate their children, leaving them with more time to simply play football in the social way that the children of Brazil do, and not only in this day and age. In stereotypical working-class estates and council housing, there is likely to be a large amount of other children around when compared to the larger, often detached houses that the upper classes would typically live in. You may call this a clutch at straws, or generalising; it possibly is, given that there is no definitive evidence. However, the infrastructure of the country's class system would back these factors up, as well as the backgrounds of many successful footballers.

Although, is there a possibility that it could go deeper than only that? Football, on many an occasion, is labelled as being the sport for 'the working class'; and the origins of the game itself, not just in England, is down to a workforce whose initiative and determination has brought about a structured, communal sport that superseded any other social gatherings and groups of the late 1800s - and it still does.

In England, the Football League's origins comes from the mills, and it was described as a "cloth cap man's game", referring to the stereotypical and universal uniform of the factory and mill workers. If the cloth cap was one symbol of their class and livelihood, then their enthusiasm for football quickly became another. William McGregor, the founder of the Football League, served an apprenticeship as a draper (a retailer of cloth that was mainly used for manufacturing clothes), indicating that his background, along with those who aided him in creating the institution, was hardly one to be considered 'upper class'.

Although the rules, regulations and general overseeing of the new league fell to the rich and powerful (the first set of the sport's rules were commissioned at Cambridge University following widespread confusion and many different versions of the game), football remained and belonged very much to the "cloth cap" population, as the locations of the founding members of the Football League itself implies.

The 12 original founding members were Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Preston North End, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers; a collection of clubs with an immense northern, and therefore industrial, influence. In fact, British workers are responsible for Spanish success, too: Athletic Bilbao were founded by steel and shipyard workers, as well as miners, from both southern and northern England. Bilbao itself was a port, the influential cog in the mechanism of the Spanish economy, home to workers who made a living at the shipyards and iron mines nearby.

Furthermore, there is a link through time from this working culture to English success - just take a look at the 1966 World Cup winning squad. For example, Gordon Banks grew up in Tinsley in Sheffield, a working class area of the city. Brothers Jack and Sir Bobby Charlton grew up in Ashington, Northumberland, which was once the centre of the coal mining industry. Ashington was considered to be the "world's largest coal-mining village" many years ago. Ron Springett spent his childhood in Fulham, a former working class suburb of London. The list goes on: Geoff Hurst lived in Ashton, which neighbours Oldham; John Connelly developed his skills in St. Helens; Jimmy Armfield's family is from Denton, greater Manchester, once the centre of hat manufacturing; Gerry Byrne grew up in Liverpool in the late 30s; Martin Peters matured in Plaistow, which borders West Ham and is home to many council estates, and Ron Flowers' younger years were spent in Edlington, again a small mining town.

Although these areas may have been much more developed in the modern day, it suggests how the aforementioned working class ethos that is ingrained, hand in hand, with football, and British football especially, may be an unmentioned, subconscious platform for success. What exactly the real, specific cause of this link is would be nigh on impossible to pinpoint, and, of course, a variety of factors influence individual people's lives; it just appears too related to be a coincidence throughout the range of poverty, underprivileged lives and working class. In other words, what this points to is that a wealthy background (naturally there are exceptions) may be the opposite of a positive backing for a football career; money cannot buy some of the social factors that lower classes gain by default. Again, it is not possible to conclude that this is definitive; yet, the ultimate point of this article is to make you wonder if such a link exists; and if it does, what is to be done about it.

Although poverty is terrible, and the charity workers and those involved around the world trying to help fight poverty are to be admired, viewing it in this light suddenly sees it as a platform for the success and infrastructure of football; whether that be extreme poverty, homelessness or a simpler or deprived life in a developed country or not, the contribution it has to football due to the mass amount of time children spend playing the sport could be invaluable. It is a superstructure; the platform of football among other factors, that has contributed over time to countless world-class footballers, and realistically, always will.

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