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Belgium's Mexican children's project going strong 30 years on

Thirty years ago, Belgium's national football team hatched a plan to help street children in Mexico; three decades on, the Casa Hogar project remains as strong and important as ever.

Children at the Casa Hogar project are given a ‘feeling of family warmth’
Children at the Casa Hogar project are given a ‘feeling of family warmth’ ©Casa Hogar

Belgium's current national team is often referred to as the 'Golden Generation', but the Red Devils of 30 years ago created their own impressive headlines.

The team featuring Jean-Marie Pfaff, Jan Ceulemans and Enzo Scifo that reached the 1986 FIFA World Cup semi-finals in Mexico were struck by the plight of the street children as they walked around near their tournament base in Toluca – and a fantastic idea began to grow.

"Every time we went out we saw dozens of street children asking for money," recalls Dr Michel D'Hooghe, head of the 1986 Belgian delegation and current chairman of the FIFA and UEFA Medical Committees. "They were orphans, victims of prostitution, alcohol or drugs, and the street was their home.

"During the last days of our stay in Toluca, the idea was formed to give our unique 'Mundial' story a lasting character. We agreed that we had to do something for the street children."

The players donated part of their tournament bonuses, the Royal Belgian Football Association (URBSFA/KBVB) got involved, and – in co-operation with Ramón and María Teresa Martínez, owners of the Belgium team hotel – the 'Casa Hogar – Diabolos Rojos' project was born.

Casa Hogar (literally: 'Home House') opened in 1987 as a centre for the care, education and counselling of street children. Three decades later, the Casa Hogar Foundation is still deeply committed to the project.

Dr D'Hooghe chairs the foundation, and board members include former URBSFA/KBVB treasurer Germain Landsheere and UEFA ethics and disciplinary inspector Karl Dhont, as well as businessmen Bart Coeman and Christopher Van Hemelryck-Bray.

Hugo Broos – another key member of that fine 1986 team – who recently steered Cameroon to Africa Cup of Nations glory – and Belgian women's international Imke Courtois are ambassadors for the project.

Today, Casa Hogar is much more than a shelter or rescue centre. Children from orphanages, or those from a background of drugs or prostitution, are supervised by a professional team of dedicated local staff. They are given a feeling of family warmth, as well as education.

Through Casa Hogar, hundreds of youngsters have mastered basic literacy and learned a trade, which has helped them to find a path to a meaningful life. In addition, the foundation has enabled six socio-cultural centres to be set up in deprived areas of Toluca.

"Since 1987, hundreds of children have been fed, raised and educated in the Casa," D'Hooghe explains. "Together with the additional socio-cultural centres, thousands of youngsters and their families have been given the possibility of a better future."

A gala dinner on 8 June will celebrate 30 years of Casa Hogar, and will be attended by former Belgian internationals who helped set up the project. The Martínez family, still the operating force behind the project, will also be present, together with a former Casa Hogar resident who recently completed his studies to become a civil engineer.

The dinner will also serve as a fund-raising event, including an auction for signed shirts of current-day stars Cristiano Ronaldo, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.

"If you look at the good things that have happened in these 30 years, one can only be proud," says Hugo Broos. With a young, dynamic team driving the venture, and various new initiatives in the pipeline, the future of this unique Belgian-Mexican partnership is assured for years to come.

Belgium is proud of helping to change children's lives
Belgium is proud of helping to change children's lives©Casa Hogar
Giving children's lives meaning through football
Giving children's lives meaning through football©Casa Hogar
Hundreds of children have been helped through the Casa Hogar project
Hundreds of children have been helped through the Casa Hogar project©Casa Hogar
The Casa Hogar project has given children in Mexico an education
The Casa Hogar project has given children in Mexico an education©Casa Hogar