The priest who built a stadium in small-town Honduras
- 7 June 2014
- From the section Latin America & Caribbean
Juticalpa is an unlikely place for a football stadium. A dusty cattle-ranching town in the rural state of Olancho, it seems hard to believe there is an urgent need for a 20,000-capacity sporting arena in this part of Honduras.
Yet amid the thick vegetation and rolling grasslands, a team of mud-caked workers is putting the finishing touches to the Estadio Juan Ramon Breve Vargas, the biggest stadium of its kind outside the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Furthermore, the brains behind the project is neither an architect nor a civil engineer but a chain-smoking Franciscan priest from Malta, Father Alberto Gauci - whom everyone here simply calls Padre Alberto.
"Honduras has a very, very big problem with drugs," he explains as we sit on the stadium's concrete bleachers.
"I've been in meetings for the past 30 years, talking and discussing the problem of drugs, yet nobody does anything about it," he says.
"We know there is a problem. So the problem has to go hand in hand with trying to find a solution."
His solution is football. A keen player in his youth, Padre Alberto remains an avid fan, especially of his adopted country's national side.
"You should have been here when Honduras classified for the World Cup!" he remembers, pulling hard on one of his cheap menthol cigarettes.
"We were out all night on the streets of Juticalpa. These people don't have very much to be proud of but I could see them smiling and feeling proud."
He wants to harness that positivity around the tournament in Brazil to try to encourage young people away from drugs, street gangs and violence in the country with the highest murder rate in the world.
"The stadium will be a place where the whole family can come together for any kind of spectacle - whether it's religion, sports or culture - sit down, have a roof over their heads and enjoy themselves," he says. "At least, that's my dream."
Lure of drugs
At the local high school, a group of kids playing football on a potholed pitch between rusted goalposts agree that Juticalpa can be a dull place for young people.
"It's easy to fall into cocaine and marijuana here", says 15-year-old Sebe. "Alcohol, too. I've seen a lot of people start using drugs."
Sebe thinks the stadium will be great because it may be used for concerts.
"I have friends who say 'Hey, we want to come to your town'," echoes his classmate Aile. "We have to tell them 'there's hardly anything here to do'. But it'll be easier once the stadium is built," he hopes.
State of the art
Even in its unfinished state, the stadium is impressive.
The roofing system was designed and constructed by local builders.
The floodlights were imported from the United States and the turf is due to be laid by students at the local agricultural college.
The result is a facility comparable with any of the leading teams in Central America.
Moreover, it was delivered on a budget of just $2m, only a quarter of which came from the local government.
The rest was raised through "$5 here, $20 there", as Fr Alberto puts it. Honduran expats in the United States pitched in too, raising tens of thousands of dollars through events such as fun runs and barbeques.
But Padre Alberto is often more touched by the smaller donations like a bag of cement or a day's free labour from people who have little to offer.
Invariably dressed in the singlet, shorts and sandals of a layman rather than the dog collar and formal robes of a man of the cloth, Padre Alberto's simple lifestyle is in keeping with his ethos of working in rural Honduras.
"Latin America is a very, very particular church", he says. As he sees it, the Catholic Church - particularly under Pope Francis - must try to work more closely with the local community.
In keeping with that sentiment, he has already overseen some impressive infrastructural projects during his 40 years in the town.
"First we started with the elderly. We used to gather the elderly people who die on the street during the night because of the cold and we built them a home," he recalls.
"Then we built an orphanage for the street kids."
The list goes on: a nutritional centre, a kindergarten, a bakery, a healthcare centre for local AIDS patients and even a prison to tackle chronic overcrowding in the penal system.
As for the stadium, the first beneficiaries will be the local football club, Juticalpa FC.
'Window to the world'
Newly promoted to the First Division, after the World Cup they will take their place in the top tier of Honduran football and now have a new home to match their ambitions.
Marco Mejia is their leading striker. At almost 40 years old, the veteran forward shares Padre Alberto's vision for the stadium, particularly as someone who battled with addiction himself.
"We accept that we're a completely underdeveloped country", he says with a slight grimace.
"Obviously we're trapped under a pile of problems from street crime to drug gangs to the killings of women and children.
"But the stadium is a window which Honduras is opening to the rest of the world. So people might start to see that Juticalpa isn't just cattle rearing and dairy farming.
"It is also football!"