As John Oliver so eloquently stated, for any fanatical fan, soccer (or football) is not just a sport; it’s a religion, and the players are gods. They are symbols of faith and inspiration. They are the key holders of success, the gatekeepers of heaven. But unlike the biblical God, a glorified, elusive entity, these gods started from humble beginnings. It was indeed their supernatural gift that elevated them to deity. Here are five soccer “gods” that ascended to become soccer stars despite impoverished roots.
Growing up in the northeast port town of Recife, one of Brazil’s most poverty-ridden slums, Rivaldo endured the hardship that comes with poverty. Due to malnourishment, he lost several teeth and was left bow-legged. His passion for football was his vehicle for prevailing through adversity. When he was 16 he signed his first professional contract with Paulistano and from then on, he rose to stardom. He competed in the World Cup in 1998 and 2002, helping Brazil reach the final round both years.
One of the greatest legends of the game, Pelé too was raised in the unforgiving streets of Brazil. With not enough money to invest in his own soccer ball, he improvised by using a sock stuffed with newspaper or a grapefruit. Talent and grit were the ingredients for his successes. Throughout his career, he was elected “Athlete of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee and in 1999 was voted “Player of the Century.” Since his retirement, he has been a worldwide advocate for the promotion of soccer as a vehicle for change in developing countries.
Raised in the shantytown of Villa Fiorito, Argentina, Maradona shared one bedroom with all seven of his siblings. He did not receive any formal education; football was his only hope. In his astounding career, he played in four FIFA World Cups, was recognized for his “Goal of the Century” and was crowned FIFA “Player of the Century.”
A current member of the Cote d’Ivoire national team, Kalou was raised in a nation in which 42.7 percent of citizens live below the poverty line. He rose to international prominence for his exceptional ability on the soccer field. Aside from serving as a figurehead of faith, he has taken an active role in inspiring his people and alleviating poverty. In 2010, he established the Kalou Foundation, which provides social services and recreation facilities for vulnerable populations.
Though he lived better than many in a country rampant with poverty, Eto’o began his career in Cameroon as a “street footballer.” He has since risen to be the highest paid player in the world, earning $17 million per year. His well-earned money goes toward his foundation, which funds development work in Africa.
These soccer stars have utilized their high profiles to inspire and ignite change. The good thing about the religion of soccer is that there is no hierarchy; there is no secret attribute that all of the gods possess. The most inspiring part of it all could in fact be the democratic nature of the sport. You do not even need a pair of shoes to pick up the game, or even a ball. You never know; bare feet and a ripe grapefruit could get you to big places.
— Samantha Scheetz