For Mohamed El-Masry, who's 14 turning 15 soon, football is a dream. But his second dream, he says: getting a good education is his first dream. When El-Masry was still living at home, he was passionate about football. But his father discouraged him.
Like many unfortunate children in Egypt, El-Masry left home early and lived on the street. He then ended up in a shelter. But today, El-Masry is pursuing his dream again and playing football. He is one of the 14 members of Egypt's team for the Street Child World Cup, and in the next couple of weeks he will know if he's one of the lucky nine from three shelters who will make it to the tournament, which begins 28 March in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
Like El-Masry, all the boys in the team are aged 14-16 and carry much baggage in the way of awful experiences after leaving their homes and living on the street. But on the pitch, they are free of the weight of that experience, and only dream about football.
While there isn't an exact figure of the number of street children in Egypt today, experts estimate the number between 200,000 and two million in Cairo and Alexandria, according to Plan Egypt's report on street children in 2013.
It is a growing phenomenon, despite many initiatives that have worked hard to contain it. One such initiative is the Egyptian chapter of the Street Child World Cup that aims to use football as a means to ultimately rehabilitate street children, allowing them to pursue a dream and widen their horizons.
According to Karim Hosny, one of the organisers of the initiative and who co-coaches the team, the experiment has worked so far on a small scale. Larger plans may follow.
Meet the team
On a football pitch in East Cairo, the young boys are running, passing the ball among each other, and playing competitively to see which side will win. The boys are split into two teams, each trying to prove themselves to guarantee a place in the final team.
The young boys call one another, build momentum, and try to score, to prove themselves. Khaled, Youssef, Abd Allah, Adham (the goalkeeper) and El-Masry were among the main players who stood out during the match.
“I always used to watch football matches with my father and told him that one day I want to be a player, but he used to mock me and tell me you will never be anything. But here I am playing here,” says El-Masry.
“Getting a good education was always my top dream, but I said to myself if I don't get education then it's football and if I don't play football then I will stick to education.”
Like El-Masry, Khaled Mohamed and Ahmed Abou Zeid say they were always interested in football, but didn't get a chance to know how to play until they joined the team. With the team, they got to understand the rules and gameplay.
“It's not only about winning and losing, it's all about the team,” says Mohamed. “We are not just playing because we want to enjoy it; we are a team representing Egypt.”
While winning is important, for the coaches teaching the boys the essence of team spirit is as important. Following the practice, Mohamed Khedr, who co-coaches the team, talked to the boys about the power of the team.
“Without a team, I am nothing,” says El-Masry. “We can't talk as individuals; we have to talk as a team.”
El-Masry and the group of boys come from three different NGOs, all collaborating to make this dream come true: Ana El-Masry, FACE and Hope Village.
There are only 49 days left until the tournament kick-offs and El-Masry and the 13 boys wait for the coaches' decision on the nine finalists who will make it to the tournament in Brazil.
While football news in Egypt may have been disappointing for a long time, the national team failing to qualifying for the World Cup on top of this, this experience might transform the lives of these young boys, and raises hope among others.
Soheir Morad, executive director of Ana El-Masry Foundation, says this experience has transformed the lives of all the boys who have taken part in it.
“One of the main problems is that these boys always felt they are not accepted by society, and no matter how many times we try to tell them that things will change, they always felt that it will always be the same. But today, they can actually feel rewarded for something they are good at, and they are able to see their dreams clearly,” says Morad.
“The boys have been training for a year now and they came out in one of the events and talked about how this experience affected them positively.”
The initiative started in Egypt when Karim Hosny, Mohamed Khedr, Morad Hakim and Mohamed Abou Hussein came together and started putting together a team of young boys and training them, with the aim to reach Brazil. The four coaches, who all have other jobs, put much thought, energy and hard work into the effort, coordinating with others and charting a path to meet the goal.
While the team was only formed last October, Hosny and Khedr, who were formerly coaching the American University in Cairo (AUC) team, heard about the initiative in 2011 during a tournament in London and since have been trying to make it happen.
“Back then, we felt that we already reached a curve with AUC's team ... We have a lot more to add and wanted to use the power of football in something bigger and more powerful, and the initiative came as an answer,” says Hosny.
The Street Child World Cup is originally a British initiative that organised the first tournament ahead of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa in 2010. Eight male teams and four female teams participated. Today, the second Street Child World Cup, to be played in Brazil, will include 18-20 male teams and eight female teams, according to Hosny.
The three main aims of the Street Child World Cup is change the public perceptions about street children, to provide a platform for street children to be heard, and to help in realising their rights. This year's Street Child World Cup will include teams from India, England, Brazil, the United States, South Africa, Argentina and other countries.
When Khedr and Hosny received a reply from the foundation in London that initiated the Street Child World Cup they thought the next steps would be easy. They faced many challenges.
“We thought we can just go meet children on the street and convince them and take them right away to Brazil. But we found it's much harder than that,” says Hosny. “We learned that the boys had to have lived on the street for at least two years and had to be in a shelter for at least a year before the tournament. This is when we started collaborating with NGOs to form the team.”
Another challenge that Hosny and the three other coaches, and all others involved in this initiative, faced is the fact that none of these boys had a passport. Even if only nine of the boys will actually travel, Hosny said they issued passports to all 14 in the team.
“This was our first encounter with the Egyptian government,” says Hosny. “We submitted an official request from the foundation in London to the Ministry of Social Solidarity and they were actually interested in the initative and helped us issue the passports right away.”
While the passports and finding a team were solved at an earlier stage, Hosny says they are still short on funds.
“We tried to keep the experience as organic as possible and not involve anything commercial in it. So that's why it's taking a while to get all the necessary funds.”
Hosny says they hope to raise all the money needed by themselves well before the tournament. But if they fail to do so, they will accept sponsorship offers.
Both the boys and the coaches have very high hopes for Brazil, but what happens after the tournament is also taking up a lot of their thoughts.
For the boys, each of them have hopes for the future. Abou Zeid says if he gets a chance to go to Brazil and win, he wants to come back to Cairo and join Zamalek Football Club.
“Zamalek doesn't get a chance to win many tournaments and hopefully if I join the team, this will change,” says Abou Zeid.
Mohamed is confident about his football skills and says that he is already receiving offers to join clubs.
“When we were playing in one of the clubs east of Cairo, someone from the club saw me and said that I could join their team. But I said I have to finish the tournament first and then see what will happen after that. You never know; maybe I can get picked by a foreign club,” said Mohamed.
“Also, Captain Mohamed Abou Treika visited our team and told me that I am talented and after the tournament he can help me join Ahly (Football Club), which would be a great chance for me.”
On the other hand, Soheir Morad says they are preparing the boys for what's beyond the tournament.
“We have enrolled the boys in community schools to give them a chance to learn and develop their skills, as many of them passed the age to enroll in schools,” says Malek. “Although all the boys are passionate about football, it's not necessary that they will all pursue that after the tournament, so we are trying to find out their other interests, and try to develop them.”
Not wanting to stop at the tournament, Hosny says they have bigger dreams.
“We dream of an academy where we can rehabilitate through football, attract all those children to leave the street, especially that it worked on a small scale for the tournament,” says Hosny.
“During the training process, some boys didn't want to stay in the shelters and wanted to go back to the street, and actually left and only came back when they found out that they won't get to play in the tournament if they left.”
“It says a lot about the power of football,” Hosny added.