When the children of Tumaco ask for career advice they tend to receive a blunt response and it comes in the form of a popular local saying – fisherman, stowaway or footballer. But that’s probably just being kind. Fishing in a smuggling haven is fraught with danger. And being a stowaway to the United States ain’t what it used to be.
That leaves just one option – to turn as many children as possible into wealthy professional footballers and it’s not an easy task. But if it seems the people in Tumaco are resorting to unnecessarily desperate measures, they’re not. They’re just trying to be realistic.
The city of Tumaco lies at the end of a skinny peninsula which stretches out into the endless Pacific Ocean. If Colombia has its problems with cocaine and guerrillas then Tumaco magnifies them. It is so far from the country’s capital, Bogotá, it is pretty much forgotten. Perhaps it should just accept its fate as the perfect trafficking port.
Except, well, Tumaco’s inhabitants have found hope in that famously beautiful game and while turning a child into a professional footballer might seem like a chance in a million, it is one every law-abiding citizen is willing to take. Dozens of adults are involved and every one focuses where they can; on coaching, fitness, diet and hours of mental discipline.
Every day hundreds of children fill Tumaco’s fields and beaches, running their drills until they are almost knee-high in the waves. Every coach you meet (most are just desperately busy volunteers) has the same dream – to give as many kids as possible a ticket out of here. Some pupils have managed to find a football kit. Others are sharing a pair of tennis shoes between two. But the passion never varies.
“I want my boy to play football. It’s the only way he’s ever going to escape,” single mum Ligia Antonia Segura, 49, confides as she watches her 13-year-old son, Walner David, train. He’s one of a group of 40 kids huddled around a coach and there are several other similarly-sized groups nearby.
Ms Segura is tiny but nothing if not determined. She explains how she built a house for her six children in Tumaco from scraps of wood. She knows the fate that awaits them if they fall into the wrong hands. She throws everything into the pursuit of the professional football world because she doesn’t have a choice. Neither do they.
There are rare jobs in government, retail and hospitality in Tumaco but little beyond that. There’s fish, of course. You can sell fish, build boats, repair boats and source wood for boats. You just might not live very long to do it.
Earlier this year left-wing FARC rebels attacked Tumaco. They killed up to a dozen people and left more than 70 injured, after turning a motorbike into a bomb in the heart of the city.
Tumaco was also the scene of Colombia’s worst military loss last year, when 10 soldiers were ambushed and killed. Three months before that, more than a dozen convicts escaped when the rebels blew a hole in the city’s prison wall. There are dozens of scrapes and skirmishes.
There are children and teenagers everywhere in Tumaco, particularly in the poorest districts where homes are built on stilts as much to escape the rubbish as the encroaching tide. In El Morrito neighbourhood the mangy dogs run behind the children, who are wearing hand-me-down clothes several sizes too big. They don’t notice that though. They’re too busy playing football.
The game in the neighbourhoods is less organised than the beach, but no less determined. Oscar Odoñes, 18, stands proudly on a small concrete rectangle. It used to be an arena of dirt until the municipal government pulled together enough money to turn it into something resembling a football pitch. He’s only wearing one shoe. The other is worn by his 16-year-old brother, Junior.
Oscar says he’s taken the game seriously since the age of 10 and, like most of the boys in the neighbourhood, he trains for up to five hours a day, doing whatever he can.
“We have to do it Miss,” he insists earnestly, balancing a scruffy ball beneath his upturned toes. “There is nothing else for us here.”
The game is relentless. I watch for more than hour, keen to spot the next Ronaldo or perhaps a Messi, before I walk slowly back to the beach. There I find one volunteer coach, Facao Ames Guariz, who has finally stopped to take a break. He has more than 50 young players in his group – organised in age groups from eight to 16. They are mercilessly running lines, dribbling and honing their passing. The military discipline, it seems, comes as standard.
Facao knows his pupils are all desperate to be professional and admits love of the game rarely has anything to do with it. They need the opportunity, he says. He is determined to help.
“We teach them the game, obviously, but we also focus on their fitness from a very young age,” he says seriously. “Playing on the beach is great for them, but they know they have to eat properly and get plenty of rest, just like the professionals.”
But you have to ask. How much chance do these kids have? Really? There might be children playing football as far as the eye can see, in every corner of Tumaco – urged on by this apparently endless army of coaches – but what are the odds of success?
Facao starts frantically patting his pockets, looking for his whistle.
“Maybe 20 out of a thousand,” he whispers.
But it still seems high, even for Tumaco where the tough upbringings, lean diets and sheer determination seems to give these kids an impressive physical edge.
“Maybe that would be considered a high number in Europe, but not here,” Facao continues, summoning the hoardes with a sharp shrill of the whistle.
“The kids want it more here. As you can see, there is nothing else for them. So they put everything they have into football. They eat, sleep and breathe it.”
History does seem to agree with him – a quick glance at Colombia’s Hall of Fame reveals a good smattering of Tumaco talent. Retired midfielder Willington Ortiz is the most famous – he joined the youth team of Bogotá’s beloved Millonarios when he was 19 and won almost 50 international caps in his career, including those from the 1972 Munich Olympics. Today you’ll find Tumaco youths scattered across Colombia’s professional leagues. There are even a few players in the lower European leagues.
But it’s not trophies they want – it’s the ticket out that counts. And even that is murky. Sometimes Tumaco’s municipal government successfully begs the top clubs to make the journey and assess the newest talent. Most of the time, though, the families just have to scrape the money together to send the most gifted kids to family and friends in other cities, where they try desperately to be spotted.
The rare days when the big clubs do send their scouts into town have achieved almost mythical status in Tumaco, especially for mothers like Ligia Segura.
She calls Walner David over to give him a quick kiss, before sending him back to his training.
“I just want someone to come and see how my boy plays,” she confides.
“I heard that if a boy is really good he can leave Tumaco the same day.”