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Football can’t save the world, but it can make a world of difference. FIFA’s Michel D’Hooghe reveals how the 1986 Belgian World Cup team in Mexico was inspired to help the lost street children of Toluca.

Report: Andy Round

“Some people think that football is a matter of life and death,” said the legendary manager Bill Shankly. “I can assure them that it’s much more serious than that.” For planet football this has become the default cliché that sums up the passion that consumes anyone who enjoys the beautiful game. But for former street children in the industrial Mexican city of Toluca, the quote carries the harsh resonance of reality.

Perhaps if Belgium had not enjoyed such a successful World Cup run in 1986 these children would still be begging and stealing their way to survival. Maybe if leader of the Belgian squad Michel D’Hooghe and players Jan Ceulemans and Eric Gerets had not gone for a walk on the streets of Toluca these youngsters would have remained victims of addiction, prostitution and violence. Perhaps if D’Hooghe had not found the perfect social partner in the form of the team’s hotel manager Ramon Martinez these children would have remained an acceptable underclass.

As it was, football genuinely changed the lives of these youngsters.

“In Mexico in 1986 everyone expected Belgium to be knocked out immediately, but we were still there six weeks later beating Spain and the USSR and making it to the semi-finals to face Argentina and Maradona,” remembers D’Hooghe. “We enjoyed such an incredible experience that we said we must do something symbolic for Mexico. Then during a walk in Toluca, we saw all these street children running around begging for pesos and I said ‘What about those guys there?’”

The seed of an idea was formed and by 5am the next day D’Hooghe, the team hotel manager Ramon Martinez and his wife Maria Teresa had formulated a plan to create Casa Hogar, a home for homeless children. “That night changed our lives,” says D’Hooghe.

Next year Casa Hogar celebrates its 25th anniversary, a quarter century of achievement that has transformed the lives of more than 350 children. As you read this seven of those youngsters are now studying at university and hundreds more have found jobs, married and are raising their own families.

It’s an extraordinary success story, but when Martinez and D’Hooghe first secured the premises for Casa Hogar it took a determined effort to convince the children it was actually a place of safety. “We went to the local metro and the first boy we found was called Benito,” say D’Hooghe. “It took Ramon some time to persuade him to come with us because these children were so used to their wild lives, but slowly Benito brought us to his friends and little by little we had 26 young people.”

These children had nothing, says D’Hooghe, except aggression. “They were like animals. Terrible.” The first time they stayed at Casa Hogar they slept beneath their beds “for shelter” and when they were offered a knife and fork they found cutlery impossible because they were used to eating with their hands. “At one stage we even had a giant puppet suspended in one of the rooms so that the boys could diffuse their aggression by boxing it,” says D’Hooghe. “Casa Hogar was a huge learning experience and we made a lot of mistakes at first.”

Many of the children were so absorbed in criminality that they could not adapt to their new home comforts and others were simply too old to change their ways. Often children would disappear prompting the house rule that if they ran away once they could return, but if it happened twice they could not.

Steadily, however, the Casa Hogar concept gained traction and the idea of a ‘replacement home for the homeless’ designed to keep the children well fed, clean and clothed with transport to school became a Toluca success story. Five staff including a child psychologist now run the casa with support from Maria Teresa who continues to visit daily. The home’s reputation for immaculately maintained facilities earned it the nickname of Casa Bonita, or ‘beautiful house’.

When Prince Albert of Belgium visited Mexico on an economic mission just months before becoming king he over-stayed his visit at Casa Hogar by more than two hours. “Now whenever he sees me he always asks after ‘our’ children,” laughs D’Hooghe.

The concept was proving to be an inspiration in other ways as well. “During one of my trips to Mexico I was driving through Toluca with Ramon and I asked, ‘Where are all the street children?’ He laughed and said: ‘The eyes of people in Toluca have been opened by Casa Hogar. The situation of the street children used to be accepted by society, but now it’s regarded as intolerable.’ Ramon told me that other socially aware groups had created Casa Hogars similar to our concept. Imagine that. After six years of opening our home, there were hardly any children on the streets of Toluca.

“In the beginning people used to ask why I was doing this, it was just one little place,” says D’Hooghe. “But you must start somewhere. You must do something. I don’t have pretentions to save all the street children in South or Central America, but you can always do something. Hopefully in the future our Toluca home will no longer be needed.”

To kick-start Casa Hogar, the Belgian players donated a percentage of their World Cup winnings to the newly formed ‘Action Red Devils’ but since its inception D’Hooghe, as the organisation’s chairman, has coordinated fund-raising activities to support its operations. Today the home continues to be financed independently.

Perhaps inevitably, Casa Hogar was not enough for either Martinez or D’Hooghe. Motivated by their impact on Tolucan society, they decided to help the poorest people in the city by establishing social and cultural centres known as ‘bibliotecas’ or libraries. “Normally if you go to a library it’s because you want a book to read but most of the people who come here cannot read or write so someone reads the paper to them every day,” says D’Hooghe.

“The libraries are built in the poorest areas where there is no electricity or sanitary installation. The idea is that they are social and cultural centres used by everyone young or old. There are books, a clean place to study, plenty of light and lots of help. We started with one and now there are seven in Toluca. My dream is that one day we will have 10.”

What is extraordinary about the achievements of D’Hooghe and Martinez is the fact that in 1986 the concept of social responsibility was not the priority it is today. Let’s not forget in 1986 Belgium was still reeling from the tragedy of Heysel a year before and Mexico was recovering from devastating earthquakes. At the time the chances of a Belgian football team helping to rescue children from the misery of the streets seemed even more remote than winning the World Cup.

But fate seems to have played the biggest role of all. The Belgian football delegation only discovered Martinez’s hotel by chance (Del Rey Inn was not listed on the FIFA list of recommended accommodation); nobody thought Belgium would survive the first round (obviously they did) and everyone expected the team to be beaten by the USSR (Belgium won 4-2). The Belgians had also not originally planned on staying in Toluca for the duration of their campaign but D’Hooghe liked the city because he believed its 2,800-metre altitude played a key factor in the team’s strong performance.

Today the impact of Casa Hogar extends beyond Toluca and has inspired countless generations of footballers. “Football is a fantastic social instrument,” says D’Hooghe. “You see it in Africa where FIFA are creating 20 Centres for Hope inspired by Casa Hogar. These are not only in South Africa but also in Mauritania, Kenya, Congo and other African countries. You have no idea how young people can be influenced when you talk to them about football.”

D’Hooghe believes that young people often prefer to listen to their footballer coaches more than anyone else and cites the example of AIDs awareness campaigns in South Africa that are directly linked to football training programmes. “The social significance of football teaches children so much,” he says. “We all start as the emperors of our families and then suddenly five or six years later we are in a team. Soon we learn to lose, we learn the world doesn’t revolve around us and we learn the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. You learn to accept the imperfect in football.”

D’Hooghe has been a FIFA Executive Committee member since 1988 and enjoyed a distinguished national and international career. But at the heart of his life is the same passion for the sport he first experienced as a three-year-old mascot running out for his local Belgian team Club Brugge. “I can’t comprehend life without football,” he laughs. “And I’m not alone. It plays such an important social role. There are 260 million FIFA-affiliated players. Think about that. For each of those players there must be at least five people close to them – mum, dad, an uncle, and a neighbour. Then do the maths that’s at least a billion people with a concrete interest in football. Do you know anything else more socially important?”

The former street children of Toluca would no doubt agree.

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