Meet 18-year-old Deybi Flores, the rising Whitecaps star who left a life of poverty for a fresh start in Vancouver.
Soccer is, by far, one of the wealthiest sports in the world. Last year’s world cup generated $4 billion in revenue for FIFA (soccer's international governing body). That’s 66 per cent more than the previous tournament. And Barcelona’s star forward Lionel Messi alone made more than $64 million in 2014.
For fans, soccer is a two-hour escape from the worries of the world. For advertisers, it's the perfect opportunity to rake in millions of dollars for peddling their products. But for Deybi Flores, the new 18-year-old midfielder for the Vancouver Whitecaps, soccer represents something much more personal, much dearer than fortune or fame.
Born in Honduras, Flores is one of many young Latin Americans who has turned to soccer to escape poverty.
Flores decided he wanted to be a professional soccer player when he was 12. He had the talent and determination, but the odds were stacked against him. At the time, Flores was a young school dropout living in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
He seemed doomed to a life of destitution. But when an offer came from a small Honduran soccer team, it sparked the hope that he and his family could escape their desperate circumstances.
Soccer was Flores’s golden opportunity to provide a better future for himself and his family. During years when most teenagers’ main worry is high-school homework, Flores doggedly pursued his dream of becoming a professional athlete—a dream that many hope for, but few achieve.
Growing up in “the murder capital of the world”
Flores was born in San Pedro Sula, a city located in northern Honduras that is often referred to as “the murder capital of the world.” Poverty, drug trafficking, gang wars, and political upheaval are common there. The murder rate is 173 per 100,000 residents, reportedly the highest in the world outside a war zone.
In Honduras, almost 70 per cent of the population lives in poverty. During Flores’s childhood, his parents often struggled to make ends meet.
“My parents always gave me everything they had to give,” he told me in Spanish while recalling his childhood years. [Editor’s note: Carlos Tello, a fluent Spanish speaker, conducted the Megaphone interview with Flores in Spanish and translated his interview material to English for this article]. “But it usually wasn't enough.”
In the midst of extraordinary daily hardship, Flores found passion in soccer. He discovered the sport as a little kid, and he quickly fell in love with it. Very soon, people started to realize he was more than just an enthusiastic player; he was talented, too.
When Flores was 12 years old, his family went through an economic crisis so dire that it forced them to eat the same food for about three weeks. Feeling powerless to help his family, Flores made a radical decision: to start working.
Still a child and fresh out of elementary school, Flores’s employment horizons were extremely limited. He had toresort to menial jobs like selling bread or assisting construction workers.His days as a worker wouldn’t last long, though. Shortly after he started working, he received an offer to join Platense Junior, a soccer team headquartered about an hour outside San Pedro Sula. It was a great opportunity for Flores to turn his passion into a profession, but in order to join the team, he would have to quit school, and leave his home and family behind. His soccer coach took him in.
“My parents wanted me to study, but a lot of people had told me I was a really good soccer player,” he says. “So I told my parents that from now on I would dedicate myself to soccer.”
Joining Platense cemented Flores’s dream of becoming a professional soccer player and fuelled his dream of providing a brighter future for himself and his family. It didn’t, though, shield him from the hardshipsof living in a city like San Pedro Sula.
“You watch some people that you were close with go down the wrong path, joining gangs and that sort of stuff,” he told the Vancouver Whitecaps in a story published on the team website. “I have some friends who were killed because they got into the wrong types of circles, you know. At the same time, there were people who were my so-called friends offering me drugs, to go out drinking, and I just had the strength to stay away from all of that because I had a greater goal in mind.”
Three years after joining Platense, Flores was hired by C.D. Motagua, one of the most successful and renowned soccer clubs in Honduras.
He moved to Tegucigalpa, where the team is based, and on January 12, 2014, made his professional debut.
Five years after poverty robbed him of his childhood, Flores’s dream of becoming a professional soccer player finally came true.
A little more than a year ago, Flores’s manager told him that he had good news. The announcement intrigued him, buthe stopped the manager before he could deliver the news. He was about to embark on a trip to Thailand to play with the Honduran under-20 (U-20) national team, and he didn't want any kind of distraction.
Once he returned from Thailand, though, Flores says he was “hysterical” with anticipation to learn the good news. When he was able to talk with his manager, he learned that the Vancouver Whitecaps were interested in acquiring him on a one-year loan.
“It was one of the best pieces of news I’ve received in my life,” he says.
Joining the Whitecaps would finally allow Flores to give full financial support to his family back home. Despite playing for a first division team and for Honduras’s U-20 national team, Flores wasn't making much money at the time.
But emigrating to Vancouver would also mean that he would have to move to a city thousands of kilometres away, and one with a vastly different culture.
At first, Flores had some reservations about leaving. But then he remembered the advice his father always used to give him.
“My dad always said: ‘When an opportunity arrives, you have to take it. You never know if it will come again,’” he explains.
In the end, Flores decided that joining the Whitecaps was best for himself and his family. So he packed his suitcases and exchanged the hot, tropical climate of Tegucigalpa for mild, rainy Vancouver.
Just the beginning
Flores arrived in Vancouver three months ago. Initially considered to be an addition to the Whitecaps’ new team inthe United Soccer League (USL)—a lower-tier league— Flores debuted in a Major League Soccer (MLS) game on March 28, 2015 against one of the Whitecaps’ biggest rivals, the Portland Timbers. He relieved Gershon Koffie 18 minutes before theend of the Cascadian grudge-match. Tobe thrown into this game was a test. And Flores shone. Two weeks later, he made his first appearance in the starting lineup in a game against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Unlike hockey, soccer only allows for three substitutions during a game. When a player has been subbed out, he can’t go back in.
Flores’s goal is to become a regular starter for the Whitecaps, as he is still mostly contributing to the team asa late-game reliever.
He also wants to bring his mother, who works in Honduras at a textile factory, and younger siblings to live with him in Vancouver. His father passed away last June. His death only served to strengthen Flores’s resolve to provide for his family.
But Flores knows that, like everything else in his life, it won’t be easy. He is still adjusting to life in Vancouver. It’s only been three months, so he’s not yet fluent in English and the language barrier prevents him from doing the most basic things, like going out on his own or meeting new people outside the team.
That won’t stop him, though. He’s been through a lot already, and he’s learned to use those challenges to his advantage.
“There were times when I feltlike quitting,” he says. “But then I reminded myself everything I had to go through to get where I was, and used all that suffering as motivation.”
Flores hopes his stint with the Whitecaps will eventually allow him to attract interest from European teams.In the future, he sees himself playing alongside world-class players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Tony Kross, two members of the German national team.
He also dreams of becoming a symbol for youth in Honduras, particularlyfor youngsters struggling with poverty or thinking about joining gangs.
He wants them to see him as an example of what bulletproof determination can bring, no matter how hard the circumstances.
“I don’t feel shame when I tell people what I endured when I was a child,” he says. “I like sharing it because it might give Honduran children who are going through similar hardships the strength to stay away from delinquency—to not give up.”