Aurio 'Puma' Castro has mapped out his own way in life. Growing up in a rugged neighbourhood in Lisbon, he was determined that his life would take a positive direction. Football – the game he has cherished since boyhood – provided 'Puma' with a road along which to travel, and helped him find a stable place in society.
'Puma' came to Portugal from Angola with his mother at the age of three. Home became Jamaica, a neighbourhood on the south side of Lisbon. Thousands of immigrants from former Portuguese colonies have settled in the neighbourhood, which is plagued by issues such as violence, drugs and extreme poverty.
"It is a dangerous district," says 28-year-old Puma, "one of the most dangerous ones here, on the south bank." Even so, Jamaica is engraved on his heart as a special place – "it's my home, my cradle, and always will be," he reflects. "Personally I really like the area and if I have to live there all my life, I will. We can leave the neighbourhood but the neighbourhood never leaves us."
Football has made a massive contribution to Puma's life from childhood. "We would all meet in the centre of the neighbourhood, in the park," he recalls. "I remember playing football and not even going home at lunch, because I'd spend all day playing. I used to ruin my shoes, even if they were new, just because I was playing football in them."
"My dreams have always been about football," Puma goes on. "There were no other paths. My dreams started on the Jamaica pitch – I used to miss classes just to play football with my friends. I used to arrive home very late because I had been playing football, and my parents were angry. It was really all about football."
Football crucially helped to keep Puma out of trouble. He might easily have lapsed into bad and dangerous habits but he committed himself to a serious life choice, to seek stability – in marked contrast to some of his friends who have endured a more turbulent road. "My seven best childhood friends are all in prison," he notes. "They chose a completely different path from mine. They chose that life – my choice was a different one."
At one stage, Puma dreamt of becoming a professional footballer. "I played for several clubs. I even went for trials at Benfica – unfortunately I didn't get to stay." A spell in the Portuguese third division followed but ended because of a problem with his documents. "I was sad for myself that I couldn't become the player that I could have been," he explains.
Time would heal the disappointment, however, and in 2011 Puma enrolled in a street football programme with the CAIS social aid organisation, which is supported by the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF). Once there, he enjoyed a fabulous experience that had a profound effect on him and his future.
"Our team took part in a regional tournament and won it. We were then invited to a national tournament, and I remember being super-motivated to perform and show my talent. After we had lost in the semi-finals, a man came up and said to me: 'You're called up for the national team.' I started crying tears of joy.”
So, that year, he travelled to the Homeless World Cup in Paris – with Puma selected to captain Portugal's team. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he says of a tournament that has the power to put fragile lives on track. "I learned a lot, it is an experience that I will take with me for the rest of my life."
Eventually an ideal work opportunity presented itself for Puma, when he joined the Criar-T social aid organisation. He works with people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, developing skills and activities – and one of his briefs is to coach a street football team as part of the 'A Volta a Rua' (Back to the Street) project.
He relishes the chance to give back to the community in this way. "I remember when I was a child, the Criar-T association used to give many things to our neighbourhood – fortunately they've always supported me. I think that the work I do today is the same that was done for me as a boy. Now I have the chance to give back in the same way."
Especially because he played in a World Cup tournament, Puma is a role model and a reference to the youngsters he coaches – "It is gratifying," he emphasises. "And if at least one kid goes on to be successful after having me influence his life one way or another, it would be the cherry on the cake."
Puma concurs that football can help impart significant life skills. "Football helped me personally in the sense that it allowed me to meet other people," he says. "I made friends, I interacted with society outside the neighbourhood."
His eight-year-old son Leandro is the apple of his eye. "He is an amazing child," the proud father says. Leandro, naturally, loves the game too and has dreams of his own. "He was born with the gift that I was also born with – football and the connection with the game," Puma continues. "My son is an inspiration – I can see myself when I watch [him] play football. I am trying to motivate him, to see if he can get to where I couldn't."
Puma is grateful for what he has been able to achieve from humble beginnings, how he is viewed as a person, and how his experiences might have a positive impact on others. "Throughout my life I've acquired many opportunities,” he says, “and if some escaped, others appeared. I chose to rise up in life – you have to grab the opportunities in front of you and keep going!
"I think my experiences in the neighbourhood enable me to inspire others – from 'Look, don't go that way' to 'Look, I've been in that situation'. I try to pass on that strength."
Puma feels that other young people in Jamaica will be able to follow his example and forge a positive life if sufficient assistance can be provided. "If [they] have activities, with the help of the council or other organisations, I believe they can have success in their lives. If there are no activities in the neighbourhood, things can get difficult. Sometimes it is necessary to have support so we can have a path in our life."
He urges his youngsters and friends to ignore any discrimination or racism directed against them because they come from the neighbourhood or, for example, because of how they look or what they wear. “We’re black – so what?” he says. “So let’s move on and try to show people that, regardless of skin colour, we can always achieve our goals.”
The boy from the neighbourhood is a shining example of how football can make a positive difference. "I think football can be a way for good," Puma states emphatically. "When we play football, we forget about problems. We are focused on the game, we want to score goals, be in a good mood and play happily.
If you ask me whether football can change a person's life or not? Of course it can; it definitely can."