Just a couple of years ago, Elías Ramírez spent his days picking coffee beans and watering coffee plants near California, Usulután, a remote village in eastern El Salvador. South of this village, on the Salvadoran coast, Roberto Membreño would dive into the ocean almost every day to harpoon fish and be able to provide some food for his family.
Fast-forward to the night of September 13th, 2011. Both the coffee picker and the fisherman were near the exit of the Salvadoran airport, along with many other young men who had also fished or farmed for a living. Outside the airport doors a boisterous crowd was cheering and chanting for them, many people were waving flags, and others were holding signs and banners with their names. With each minute that passed, the crowd became louder and more energized.
When the young men inside the airport noticed the ruckus, they got nervous. Ramírez stood still, almost paralyzed. "I couldn't move, I didn't want to go outside when I saw all those people shouting and cheering. I panicked a little," he confessed to me during an interview.
But soon they garnered strength and walked out to the frenzy that awaited them. Blinded by camera flashes and poked by the microphones of reporters, they made their way to a coach bus that whisked them away to a soccer stadium in the capital city where they would make an appearance in front of an equally wild crowd.
But what had these men done to be received like international pop-stars?
Well, these fishermen and farmers also moonlighted as beach soccer players - all members of the national beach soccer team that was returning from Italy where it won fourth place in the World Cup. Fourth place might not seem that glorious, but for a country obsessed with soccer and starved for positive role models and good news, it was reason enough to celebrate euphorically. Much of the local obsession with the team stemmed not just from their performance at the tournament, but mostly from the fact that they - a group of poor fishermen and farmers who played beach soccer for fun during the weekends - were able to get to fourth place despite their unlikely origins and limited resources.
"When I met them, they lived in shacks with the walls covered with plastic and they slept on the floor" said head coach Rudis Gallo, who finalized the team roster after the former head coach, Israel Cruz, first started putting together a team when he noticed the talent of these young men.
Once the team was finalized, they started training for international competitions. Like other beach soccer teams, they learned about soccer techniques, worked out, and practiced their skills on the field. Unlike other teams, however, the coach also had to engage in some untraditional training.
"When we started going out as a team, I realized that they didn't know how to use cutlery and they made a lot of noise moving their chairs and eating," said coach Gallo. "So then we started to teach them how to use forks and knives on top of teaching them how to work as a team and respect each other."
All their training eventually paid off at the 2011 World Cup, but not before encountering many setbacks. On the field, the team lost many games in previous tournaments and in their opening match against Portugal in the World Cup, they were defeated 11 to 2. Outside the field, many players were nervous and uncomfortable being so far away from their homes.
"We don't like traveling so much, we get nervous, especially on airplanes because we feel that they are too heavy and they might fall," said Ramírez, who plays defense for the team, "And we also don't like staying in hotels, because we are used to being outside all the time and there we had to be indoors too much, but we try to enjoy it because it's pretty and we know that we would have never been able to travel there by our own means."
Fortunately, this anxiety was not enough to prevent the team from beating soccer powerhouses like Argentina and Italy as they made their way to the semi-finals of the World Cup. Salvadorans everywhere followed the team's games, holding their breath during the game and then celebrating and cheering once the team had secured its victories. Even when the team lost to Russia in the semi-finals and again to Portugal for the third place, Salvadorans were ecstatic. That a team from El Salvador had even participated in a World Cup was a dream come true for many; that they scored their way to fourth place was too much to handle.
But the beach soccer team's performance has a significance far beyond the soccer field. It made it painfully obvious for El Salvador that educational opportunities - whether in academics, sports, the arts - are vital for people to reach their potential and contribute to the country's development. The players themselves have come to realize that they can achieve much more with more education. The team captain, Agustín Ruiz, recently enrolled in elementary school to learn how to read and write, Frank Velásquez, who won the FIFA Bronze Scorer Award at the World Cup, started taking classes to become a DJ, while other team members have formed a fishing cooperative with the help and guidance of the private sector and the government.
It is inspiring to see these young men finding and developing their talents, and in doing so leaving behind lives of poverty. But at the same time it is inevitable to think of all those Salvadorans who because of a lack of opportunities live a life of unfulfilled potential. Imagine all the professional athletes the country could have if children had the chance to play a sport instead of having to work for a living during their free time, or worse, participating in street gang violence. Or all the scientists who could have engaged in groundbreaking research had their education continued passed the sixth grade. What about all those poems and books that were never written because their authors never learned how to write? Hopefully, we will one day be able to cheer them on, marvel at their scientific findings, and enjoy their writings.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.