Football: it’s the game of the people, or so it is said. Few other sports can be cobbled together in something of an organized fashion with so little resources. Where a set of posts and a crossbar are unavailable, the nearest bundle of sticks will do. At a loss for a ball, a round fruit or bound rags can suffice. With a modern venue out of the question, dusty streets can instead become a theater of dreams. The very sport itself is an expression of both collective culture and individuality. And for a fair many professionals, it also represents an escape from a life addled by social and economic strife.
Poverty can be a powerful motivator, even if it is one undoubtedly tragic in nature. Football has long been a vehicle for many underprivileged men and women to improve their financial circumstances, never more than in the present, lucrative state of the game. The true beauty of the matter lies not only in that those successful in this regard are able to rise due to their own blood, sweat and tears – but that in doing so their families are lifted, while thousands of fans can revel in and derive joy from their achievements.
There are remarkable stories embedded in this sporting phenomenon, each bathed in a distinct nature which comes to define the player in question. Come along as we count down the top 20 active footballers from around the globe who grew up poor – some still at the top of their game, while others have entered the twilight of their careers.
No, he’s not retired – yet. And yes, this is the same Adriano who was once one of world football’s most brilliant strikers, before inconsistency and personal troubles brought his career to its knees. Before Adriano ever kicked a ball for the likes of Parma and Inter, he was a young boy stuck in poverty stricken Rio de Janeiro favela Vila Cruzeiro, but dreaming of the high life and the chance to buy his mother a mansion. Adriano indeed worked his way out of Vila Cruzeira – where drug traffickers notoriously murdered a TV Globo reporter, Tim Lopes, in 2002 – signing with Flamengo and quickly being beckoned to Italy before his 20th birthday.
19 Steven Pienaar
Growing up in apartheid-era South Africa was a dangerous proposition for Steven Pienaar, who has described native Westbury – on the fringes of Johannesburg – as a cauldron of violence and strife. Pienaar has recalled being banned by his mother from sitting on the couch to watch television, as she feared a stray bullet would come flying through the window and harm her son – so he was restricted to sitting on the floor. The Everton man has also recalled despicable instances of racism he faced because of the color of his skin – and the joy he felt when apartheid was lifted at long last in 1994. While Pienaar was able to escape the dangers of Westbury via football, many others weren’t – soon after joining Ajax, a close friend of his was tragically lost to the mayhem of Westbury, an event Pienaar says is too painful to speak about at length.
18 Yuri Zhirkov
For Yuri Zhirkov, football was initially a way to escape a cramped life at home that saw the six members of his family crammed into a one-bedroom apartment in Tambov. As a youngster, Zhirkov would stay out kicking a ball around in the alleys between buildings in his neighborhood, waiting until his family had gone to sleep to return home. He slept on a folding bed and would miss training during the summer months to aid his parents growing food to sustain them during the winter. Zhirkov’s first payment for his footballing services was also in food, and not until he was signed by CSKA Moscow as a 20-year-old did Zhirkov have the financial means to watch the sport he played on television in his own home.
17 Alexander Hleb
First things first, Alexander Hleb is still kicking around in football. He’s only 33 still and finds himself with Turkish outfit Genclerbirligi – say that 10 times fast. The Arsenal cult hero has a true tale of hardship behind him, having grown up in the shadow of the Chernobyl disaster as a youngster in Belarus. Hleb’s father volunteered demolishing houses left uninhabitable due to radiation, something that would later contribute to health complications. A young Hleb was limited to a single pair of worn-out boots and spent his time playing on concrete pitches in Minsk, building a reputation that earned him an opportunity with Bate Borisov – opening the door to later adventures with Arsenal and Barcelona.
Unfortunately for Robinho, it didn’t take to long for him to realize that the strings of poverty can still pull at those who have escaped it. Robinho’s childhood was spent honing his skills on the streets of Sao Vicente, not far from the city that harbors one of Brazil’s most famous football clubs. It was Pele himself who swooped to bring the prodigy to Santos, naming the youngster as the chosen one to take up his mantle with the club. Robinho’s success at Santos, however, attracted the attention of predators, who kidnapped his mother 45 miles outside of Sao Paulo and only released her once a ransom had been paid.
15 Antonio Cassano
Early life wasn’t kind to Antonio Cassano, widely regarded as one of football’s greatest talents to squander his potential due to a generally poor disposition. Born into the harsh reality of Bari Vecchia – a troubled neighborhood in the Puglian city – Cassano’s father abandoned the family before his son was old enough to even know what had happened. Life was difficult thereafter, with the boy’s mother struggling to support the family. It was in the streets that Cassano was first noticed by a Bari scout, who plucked him up, simultaneously discovering one of Italy’s greatest young talents. Cassano has since admitted that a life of crime likely awaited him had he not been found – though some will argue Cassano’s resistance to commitment throughout his career has been criminal.
14 Samuel Eto’o
The son of an accountant, Samuel Eto’o enjoyed a greater degree of privilege than many others in his native Cameroon, yet there remains no photographic record of his childhood. Eto’o’s family was unable to pay for a camera, and as such his christening as a footballer on the streets of Douala remains a matter of the striker’s own depiction. It didn’t take long for Eto’o to catch the eye with natural talent that saw him earn comparisons to the legendary Roger Milla. Eto’o’s father was shocked when his son came home one day to proudly announce that he had been offered in the region of $30 per day to represent a local club – the elder Eto’o hadn’t realized football could be a lucrative pursuit. Little did he know that the Sampdoria forward would one day sign a world record $26 million per year contract at Anzhi Makhachkala.
Tight spaces and unconventional surfaces are often credited for the development of future Brazilian stars, and Dante was no different from his peers. As a youth, Dante spent his time with a ball at his feet in the car park of the supermarket where his mother worked as a cashier. Despite his persistence growing up in the Federacao neighborhood of Salvador, Dante’s appeals for a chance with a Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro based club fell on deaf ears. Instead, his opportunity would arrive in the form of Matsubara – located over 1,000 miles from his home in Salvador. When Dante discovered nobody had the means to buy him a bus ticket, he took matters into his own hands – selling his video games to purchase a one-way pass to chase down his ambitions far from home.
12 Dani Alves
For Dani Alves, his destiny was written in the stars. Or on the walls of his father’s home. Alves’ brothers say that as a six-year-old the Barcelona star would go from wall to wall in the house signing his name, preparing for the day scores of admirers would outstretch their hands looking for his autograph. It would come, but only after hard work had been done. Alves rose from his cement bed before dawn each day at a tender age to assist his father picking melons and farming unforgiving fields in Bahia, also picking up work as a waiter or trader when possible. His father was able to start a club where Alves truly got his start in organized football, starting out as a winger before being moved to his now-customary right-back position. Once a distant dream, the confines of the Camp Nou would become a reality down the years.
11 Yaya Toure
It wasn’t until the age of 10 that Yaya Toure had his very own football boots, having spent years knocking a ball about without shoes in the streets of his native Cote d’Ivoire. “Boots were very expensive,” Toure told The Guardian in 2011. “And when there are seven in your family and you say you want to buy a pair your father wants to kill you.” But in the Manchester City midfielder’s own words: “I just had a normal African childhood. Life was a struggle when I was growing up.” Toure clearly took his opportunities as they came. He used his distinguished youth career at ASEC Mimosas as a springboard to Europe with Belgian outfit Beveren – from where he has gone on to ply his trade in Ukraine, Greece, France, Spain and England.
10 Wayne Rooney
The Manchester United striker wasn’t severely deprived as a child, but nonetheless life growing up in Croxteth didn’t have anywhere near the luxuries a professional footballer enjoys. Wayne Rooney’s father endured somewhat frequent bouts of unemployment while his Everton-loving children dreamed of slotting into the starting eleven for their beloved Toffees. The cracked urban landscape of Croxteth has a reputation for drugs and guns, but a Rooney fueled by desire was able to steer well clear – and become a teenage sensation in due time at Goodison Park. Now, current environs at Old Trafford are a world away from where he began in a tough section of Liverpool.
9 Carlos Tevez
Carlos Tevez, became known as El Apache, after the crime-ridden Buenos Aires neighborhood of Fuerte Apache from which he emerged to become a beloved man of the people. Tevez has recounted tales of a childhood blighted by crime and deprivation, of walking to school in the morning past the bodies of slain neighbors in the street. He credits his dribbling ability to having to weave around shattered glass and syringes in an effort to avoid disease, all the while wearing boots so outgrown his toenails became stunted. The Argentine has called football “the best thing that can happen to you” – and it was his focus on the sport, rather than the life of crime others around him fell into, that allowed him to take advantage of his innate, unique ability.
8 Alexis Sanchez
From the despair of Chilean industrial center Tocopilla burst forth Alexis Sanchez, once a boy determined to succeed in order to improve his mother’s quality of life. With his father largely out of the picture, Sanchez’s mother looked to make ends meet by taking a cleaning job at his school – something that perturbed the Arsenal star. “When she was cleaning in the school I hid because I didn’t like to see her there,” Alexis has said. Sanchez washed cars to bring in extra income for his family while working his way through the ranks to professional status as a footballer. Had he not made it as a footballer Sanchez has noted that he likely would have ended up working in the local mine – but by 16 Alexis made his professional debut, and it wasn’t long after that Europe came calling via Udinese.
7 Luka Modric
Just looking at the oft-smiling Luka Modric, one would be hard pressed to glean the pain the Real Madrid midfielder felt in his formative years – spent in a war zone. Modric was only five when the Croatian War of Independence broke out in 1991, and just months later his grandfather would be tragically murdered as part of the conflict. The future Tottenham maestro was forced to live in an impromptu refugee camp in a hotel with his village occupied, passing the time by kicking a football around the parking lot, even with danger always lurking nearby. Fleeing incoming grenades was a common occurrence for the young Modric during his early days at NK Zadar. As the war ended, Modric would eventually rise through the ranks, despite facing rejection from beloved childhood club Hajduk Split.
6 Angel Di Maria
Like many other professional footballers, Angel Di Maria was a hyperactive child – something his mother has readily admitted. Football was a way to focus his energy and give the youngster a project of sorts to work on. That said, things were tough for a young Di Maria in Rosario. His River Plate-loving father had once dreamed of starring for the famed club, only to see his career shattered by a devastating injury. Instead, Miguel Di Maria was consigned to a coal yard, employing little Angel to help with his work. The junior Di Maria eventually showed immense promise as a footballer and was bought from his original club for 26 balls by Rosario Central, riding a half-hour to training each day by bike with his mother to advance his skills.
Just four months into his life, Neymar’s mother and father believed they had lost their son after a car accident left him bloodied, with the car teetering on the edge of the cliff. Neymar Junior would emerge to become a prodigy, growing up in a cramped room in his grandfather’s house, shared with his sister and parents. He used his relatives as improvised goal posts and training dummies to simulate the necessary environment. So meteoric was his rise at Santos that Real Madrid took notice of the then 13-year-old, flying him and his father to Spain. But Neymar noticeably missed the simplicity of life at home, returning to Santos to continue his development despite a lucrative offer – and only returning to Europe for good to sign with Barcelona in 2013.
4 Zlatan Ibrahimovic
What ingredients went into making the stew that is one-man show Zlatan Ibrahimovic? They certainly weren’t the sweetest available. Ibrahimovic was raised in the Rosengard district of Malmo, a place more renowned for swallowing youngsters whole than spitting out brilliant footballers. The Swede’s Bosnian father was an alcoholic, his Croatian mother something of a hard case – the pair split when a young Zlatan was two. Ibrahimovic was left to steal what he needed – at times, a bike to ride to training – developing his technical skills by playing a brand of street ball on a makeshift pitch in Rosengard with friends. Not until Ibrahimovic was 18 did he truly see his own potential as a footballer – and as they say, the rest is history.
3 Franck Ribery
While many professional footballers were raised told they were destined for greatness, Franck Ribery was forced to grind his way to the top. The tricky winger was forged in the hard-boiled Chemin-Vert neighborhood in his native Boulogne-sur-Mer, in northern France. As a two-year-old Ribery sustained his distinctive facial scars when he was catapulted into the windshield of a car in an automobile accident. Ribery later shone as a teenager for the Lille academy but would be sent packing for a questionable work ethic, going on to do construction work while battling through the lower French leagues. It was all certainly worth it – Ribery arrived in due time.
2 Luis Suarez
Beloved in Montevideo, Luis Suarez spent the first years of his life instead in Salto, playing shoeless football in the streets. Not until he was seven – driven by his father’s unemployment – did the former Liverpool striker move along with his six siblings to the Uruguayan capital. Suarez’s family was often unable furnish him with boots to play with, while his father left the family behind when the Barcelona star was twelve. He struggled for focus during formative days at Nacional after falling in with a rough crowd – but Suarez has credited the hardships he faced as a youngster for fueling his desire to succeed in football.
1 Cristiano Ronaldo
A world away from the glitz and glamour of his life as one of history’s greatest ever footballers – despite being far from finished – Cristiano Ronaldo was just a boy from Madeira. The icon has shared stories of his modest upbringing devoid of toys and Christmas presents, sharing a room with three of his siblings. Not until he signed for Manchester United in 2003 would he set foot on an airplane. Ronaldo’s humble beginnings certainly did him well in the pursuit of excellence – he’s admitted to only thinking he was good enough to play football semi-professionally as a teenager.