On 16 April Ecuador suffered one of the worst natural disasters in its entire history. On the north western Pacific coast a 7.3 earthquake shook the country to its core, killing over 600 people and leaving thousands injured. As always the ones to suffer most are the young and the old, many of whom will carry the scars for life.

A natural disaster of this kind will also leave structural damage and many people homeless. In the hardest-hit port city of Manta – which counted for 75 per cent of the victims – tented communities sprung up as people’s homes were destroyed or rendered too dangerous to live in. Amongst the tented cities’ population are scores of children living in rough and difficult conditions. The airport has been converted into a camp site housing hundreds of families.

Football provides outlet

Four hundred kilometres away, contrasting from the destruction and disaster sits the proud Atahualpa stadium, a site that has given Ecuadorians joy and happiness, the place where the national team won through to three FIFA World Cups™ in 2002, 2006 and 2014. It was there, during the recent South American World Cup qualifiers, where a group of 16 young children were taken out of their tented community and driven up the mountains to take part in the pre-match ceremony, before the match between Ecuador and Brazil. The kids are victims of the earthquake, losing family members and their homes. It is football that provides some solace from their circumstances and a charitable group called Futbol Mas provided the means and transport to take the youngsters to live an experience that will be with them forever.

It’s a long and winding road from Manta to the capital city Quito, and for many of the kids it was the very first time they had ever travelled outside their home city. Their joy written all over their faces as they rode the bus for six hours, the day before the big match. On the morning of the game they stepped inside the stadium for rehearsals, all wide eyed and amazed as they took in the majestic structure sitting on the side of the Andean mountains. This was a real life dream. After the rehearsal it was time to rest and wait, later to be summoned to the player’s tunnel minutes before the game.

Then it was time to walk out in front of 35,000 cheering spectators to the rhythm of the FIFA anthem. First the competing countries flags, the FIFA and FIFA Fair Play flags. Behind them Barcelona’s Neymar, Antonio Valencia of Manchester United, Willian of Chelsea and other household names from the world of football.

It was all over in a few minutes, but for years the kids will tell their story of the day they took part in a FIFA World Cup ceremony. Twelve year old Esperanza talked about her experience saying: “At first I was a bit nervous, but I’ve really had a great time, as a kid we never get an opportunity like this, ever, I’ve made new friends, I’ve seen famous players and watched a game. It’s a pity we lost, but this has been great.” Ten year old Juley said: “After the earthquake I had to move away from friends and now I live on the site of the old airport. Today has been great, I carried Ecuador’s flag, I saw the players and had a great time.”

For all of them it was a journey of a lifetime, not just the physical journey, but a life journey an unforgettable trip to savour for the rest of their lives. On many occasions football provides a window to escape from life’s hardships, from routine and everyday problems. This time football provided an escape from the debris and destruction, changing young lives transforming them forever.

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