Chicago – In South America, future soccer stars learn the game on vacant lots or improvised playing fields, but in Chicago the dream of becoming a professional can begin at a new K-8 charter school.
The UNO Charter School Network Soccer Academy promises its students the education necessary for success in a future working life, either with a university degree or as a player.
Children can soak up in the classroom the No. 1 passion of the Latino community with an education focused on soccer, from history and literature to cultural studies.
And then on the playing field, in a stadium still under construction, they will spend at least five hours a week learning the sport following a specially designed training program.
Stamina, aerobics, agility, balance, speed and muscular strength plus discipline, teamwork, communication and leadership - all this without neglecting studies that include instruction in foreign languages, so that the future stars can pursue their careers anywhere in the world.
Sports training will be in the hands of professional coaches, who will also be in charge of the kids' personal and psychological development.
"We have a lot of talent and many future stars in our community," Juan Rangel, executive director of the United Neighborhood Organization, said.
"Unfortunately, many of our children who are good at playing soccer are not academically prepared to succeed," he said.
Rangel knows that many soccer players sacrifice their studies to become aces on the playing field, a loss that money from future contracts will never be able to restore.
At the UNO academy, academic performance will better prepare students for higher education and winning scholarships that open the door to a college career, he said.
The soccer academy, officially inaugurated Thursday night, is the 10th educational center administered by UNO in Chicago as a charter school, which belongs to the city's public school system but at the same time is autonomous in matters of curriculum, calendar and budget.
Rangel said that the new institution will also relieve the overcrowding of nearby schools since it is able to take 575 of those students who in their majority are Latinos from southwest Chicago's Gage Park neighborhood.
The project is supported by the Chicago Fire, the city's Major League Soccer franchise.
The Fire currently has some outstanding Latin American players including Pavel Pardo, a former star of the Mexican national team.
It could be that the Fire will no longer have to go so far afield to find reinforcements with the UNO academy serving as a local source of new talent.