In 2022, Ricardo and Elisa Wall (Paraguay) started a soccer ministry for children who immigrated from all over the world to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. In Ciudad del Este, Ricardo helps children stay active, builds relationships with them and shares the love of Jesus.
Originally, Ricardo and Elisa wanted to share the gospel in Egypt, but they did not get enough resources to make the move and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Instead, they talked to David Dominguez, OM’s field leader in Paraguay, and he encouraged them to start a ministry in Ciudad del Este. With the help of some contacts, Ricardo and Elisa started a soccer school. In the beginning, they handed out invitations in apartment buildings where many immigrated families live. As more people learnt about the soccer school, children started to invite their friends to attend.
Ciudad del Este attracts people from the Middle East and other countries around the world due to its strategic location for businesses as the city borders Brazil and Argentina. Though many people say they are Muslim, “Oftentimes, they don’t even know how to define what they believe,” Ricardo explained. The soccer ministry allows him to build connections with the players and their families.
Oftentimes fathers in Ciudad del Este work long hours, while mothers stay at home to raise their children and do housework. This lifestyle causes children to have a poor relationship with their father and to have few opportunities to get out and be active. Ricardo realised that many of these children also have not heard the gospel.
Staying active and sharing the gospel
The soccer school provides a way for children who haven’t heard the gospel to learn a sport and about Jesus. They make new friends, develop relationships with their coaches and learn biblical values they can apply to their daily lives. Currently, 25–30 children, ages 9 to 16, attend the soccer school.
One other man helps with logistics and drives the children to the field, while Ricardo oversees the soccer training. Occasionally they are helped by their families and other believers.
According to Ricardo: “Driving the children to the field gives us the advantage over other schools because hardly anyone does that.” With their fathers at work all day and their mothers staying at home with younger siblings, many of the children wouldn’t have a way to get to the soccer field if the coaches did not drive them. Often, the women don’t have a driver’s licence.
Although parents don’t drive their children to and from the field, the coaches are still able to build relationships with families through the young players.
Typically, soccer practice lasts an hour and a half, the time divided into three sections of 30 minutes. During the first 30 minutes, the coaches talk to the players about school or how their week went. Exercises and warmups start after this relational time, while the rest of practice focuses on soccer skills. Training times centre around biblical values. “We don’t have a time where we preach the gospel to them, but we do speak about values that for us, are rooted in the Bible,” said Ricardo.
The children are curious and ask the coaches questions about their faith, which opens the door for the men to talk about following Jesus. On the first day of Ramadan last year — the month of fasting in Islam — the children didn’t want to drink or eat anything in order to keep Ramadan. During one soccer practice, a few boys accused each other of eating and drinking during the day. None of the boys had kept Ramadan, but they wanted to give the impression of being devoted, especially in front of their coaches.
A believer who was helping with the soccer ministry told the boys that they missed the purpose of Ramadan when they fought with each other. One boy asked why the coaches didn’t follow Ramadan. The Jesus follower explained that they didn’t have to observe certain rules and traditions because they had a Saviour, which opened the door for the believer to share the gospel with the boys.
“Mainly, what the soccer school gives us is a connection to the kids,” said Ricardo. “Those connections are the key to talk to them about the gospel, not necessarily during the practice. [Coaching soccer leads to] these opportunities where we can connect, where we can get together, where we can chat and then start to share about our faith or belief in the gospel.”
Expanding sports ministries
In the future, Ricardo dreams of a larger team as running the programme with only one other person is difficult. Having a larger team would allow both coaches to share responsibilities and expand the ministry.
There are many opportunities for believers to start their own sports ministries in Paraguay. “This soccer school is only one of many ways that we can interact through sports with different people,” Ricardo said. For example, a group of men from Bangladesh play cricket in a park every Sunday afternoon. Sometimes, Ricardo plays with them or stops to talk, but he says a believer who plays cricket on a regular basis could build connections with the men and share the gospel with them. Only able to do so much, Ricardo prays that other Jesus followers who have a passion for sports will take advantage of these opportunities.
Although Ricardo has a passion for sports and coaching, his ultimate goal for the soccer school is to point people to Christ. He shared: “We want [participants] to grow in their understanding of God and to be a better friend, a better son, a better husband one day, and a better family father.”
Pray for more Christ followers to get involved in Ricardo’s soccer ministry in Paraguay. Pray that the Holy Spirit would work in the children who come to the soccer school. Pray that more believers would start sports ministries in Paraguay to build connections with people who haven’t heard about Jesus yet.