Career advice in Tumaco comes in the form of a popular local saying: “Fisherman, football player or stowaway.” If you don’t have the legs for professional football, nor the stomach to gut fish all day – you’d be best to hide yourself away on the first ship heading for the United States.
It’s a gloomy way to look at life in this distant Nariño town, a sprawling peninsula that unfolds straight into the Pacific from Colombia’s forgotten south-west, but here they like to tell it to you straight. “I want my boy to play football,” Ligia Antonia Segura says, ruffling the hair of her 13-year-old son, Walner David. “It’s the only way he’s ever going to escape.”
It’s impossible to argue with the diminutive 49-year-old because everything around her seems to hold with her view. Beyond the rare jobs in government, retail or hospitality, life in Tumaco revolves around fish. You can find fish, you can sell fish, you can build and repair fishing boats or, if you like life at the source, you can travel into the jungle and find the timber needed for the boats.
However, beyond the innocence of the fish trade, lurks the specter of cocaine and Tumaco’s infamy as a trafficking port. Whichever way you look at it, life doesn’t hold a great deal of hope for the legions of teenagers here in need of a future.
Young people are everywhere in Tumaco’s poorest districts. In one neighborhood, El Morrito, the houses appear to have been built on stilts as much to avoid the mountains of rubbish as the encroaching ocean tide. The dogs are mangy but the children are beautiful in their hand-me-down clothes. The adults are friendly and industrious and the schoolhouse is newly painted, but when it comes to boys in their mid teens there is only one occupation – Football.
The municipal government recently replaced El Morrito’s makeshift dirt arena with a small concrete rectangle and two ramshackle goals. The footwear might be shared and the shin pads non-existent, but the game is an earnest one and can last up to five hours a day. Oscar Odoñes, 18, who is sharing a pair of plimsolls with his 16-year-old brother Junior, says he was 10 when he started to take the game seriously. He trains every day but you have to wonder if being a professional footballer is even vaguely achievable. “It has to be Miss,” Oscar replies without smiling, balancing the scruffy ball beneath his upturned toes. “Here there is nothing else.”
Back towards the beach, the football is suddenly more organized. Volunteer coach Facao Ames Guariz has more than 50 students – organized in age groups from 8 to 16 – and they are all running lines, dribbling balls around cones and practicing their passing. There are several more soccer schools nearby and all of the children are diligent and properly attired.
Facao knows every pupil is desperate to be a professional. It’s not just because they love the game, he says, but also because they need the opportunities. He is determined to help them in any way he can. “We teach the game but we also focus on their fitness. 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,” he says.
But how much chance do they have of making it to the big leagues? Here there are children playing football everywhere, running into the distance until they are almost ankle deep in the ocean waves. Facao starts frantically patting his pockets, having misplaced his whistle. “Maybe 20 out of a thousand will make it,” he says finally.
That figure seems a little high, even for a place like Tumaco where the African ancestry, tough upbringing and lean diet seems to lend these kids an impressive physical edge. “Maybe in your country,” Facao replies, finally finding what he is looking for and summoning hordes of children to his side. I can feel the phrase of the day is approaching and, sure enough, it soon arrives, “You have to remember, here, there is nothing else.”
It’s true enough, I suppose, and plenty of professionals do come from this part of Colombia. Retired midfielder Willington Ortiz is the most famous – joining the youth team of Bogotá Millonarios at 19 and winning almost 50 international competitions in his career, including those from the 1972 Munich Olympics. Today there are Tumaco youths scattered across the national sides, even a few players in Europe.
But the road out is nothing if not murky. Sometimes the municipal government begs the top clubs to travel to the coast so they can see the talent on offer. But most of the time, it seems, the money is just scraped together so the most gifted kids can be sent to their 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.
“I just want someone to come and see how my boy plays,” Ligia Segura confides quietly, releasing Walner David back to his game. “I heard that if a boy is really good, he could leave here the same day.”