LAFC’s José Cifuentes advocates for school soccer programs in Ecuador

LAFC’s José Cifuentes advocates for school soccer programs in Ecuador originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Some of the globe’s greatest soccer stars are taking the stage for the first time at a FIFA World Cup this November – one of these newcomers being José Adoni Cifuentes.

Cifuentes, nicknamed Cifu by his loved ones, is a midfielder for Los Angeles FC and Ecuador’s national team, which actually just received clearance to participate in the 2022 FIFA World Cup following a case filed by Chile.

At merely 23 years old, Cifuentes has proved to top the charts as one of the greatest soccer players to ever emerge from the World Cup-less country of Ecuador. 

Let’s take a look at how one of the top goal-scorers for LAFC became immersed in the sport:

Born in a poor city, his soccer dreams were slim

The young star was born and grew up in the tiny city of Esmeraldas, which is known to be an extremely low-income area with some of the highest poverty rates in Ecuador. 

Nonetheless, the city possesses the greatest biodiversity and breeds some of the best soccer players in the history of the country – one of them being Cifuentes.

School wasn’t always a priority

For the Ecuadorian soccer player, school wasn’t always at the top of his list of must-dos. Cifuentes “always knew his top priority was soccer,” said Eric Alvarez of LX News.

It’s difficult for a young person to go to school while he or she pursues elite soccer in Ecuador. 

“Finding elite competition usually requires that a teenager move to a big city. And that move is usually to a demanding soccer academy that does not provide money nor plans for a custom education,” said Alvarez.

Therefore, Cifuentes dropped out of school before finishing middle school to pursue soccer, which he explained as being worrisome to his mother, who always urged school to come first.

“My mom didn’t finish elementary school so she and my dad worked really hard so that we could finish our studies,” said Cifuentes in an interview with LX News.

Cifuentes and his mother were clearly on conflicting paths when it came to prioritization, so the two had no choice but to reach a compromise.

“I would finish my homework and go straight to the soccer field,” said Cifuentes. 

He would do this for five years before being offered an even greater opportunity to optimize his soccer skills while simultaneously continuing his education.

Cifu’s talent grew and so did the demands of his passion

To his mother’s relief, an opportunity berthed itself for Cifuentes as his soccer talent became more and more evident.

When he was 11 years old, his soccer career was beginning to turn tides. People were starting to notice his talent and tenacity. Eventually, he was offered an opportunity to enroll in a soccer academy six hours away from his hometown Esmeraldas, all the way in Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

“Esmeraldas simply didn’t have the resources a big city offered,” said Juan Pablo Angel, a former Colombian soccer player and current LAFC consultant.

This chance would allow Cifuentes to pursue both soccer and continue education – which of course was ideal for both him and his parents. 

“Were he to stay home, he would have risked slowing down his progress and sinking his dreams of playing professional soccer,” added Angel.

“For many Ecuadorians, moving to a big city is a way to get closer to a better future,” said Alvarez. “That’s precisely what Cifu experienced.” 

Cifu’s career took off, but things didn’t go as planned

Cifuentes' career was exploding with potential. After a few years at the soccer academy in Quito, he was asked to join an even more intense academy. However, the new grounds did not prove to suit Cifu.

“Seven or eight games went by and I didn’t play,” said Cifuentes. “I called my mom and told her, ‘Mom, send me money for my ticket back home. I’m going hungry here. I want to play, but they won’t let me,’ and my mom said, ‘OK, I’m buying you a ticket for tomorrow’.” 

His mother would do so, under one condition – that Cifu would promise to never set foot on a soccer field again.

The young soccer star couldn’t bear to expel himself from all things soccer for the rest of his life, so he politely declined his mother’s offer and stayed at the academy.

“That’s when everything changed,” said Cifuentes.

He returned to the academy with pessimism in regard to his playing time, but one of his teammates assured him that things would change and he would get the time he deserves.

The trek to Ecuador’s national team

While Cifu was patiently waiting for his moment to prove himself on the field, Ecuador’s national team began to face its own struggle. 

Cifuentes’ current agent, Cristian Reinoso, told the Ecuadorian coach at the time that the team needed to find new talent or they would never recover.

Reinoso intended to share promising players with the Ecuadorian squad, however, he knew that he would have to do way more than convince the coaches. Reinoso was going to have to convince the families of these minors, which we already know proved difficult for Cifuentes the first time.

Reinoso had a brilliant idea.

“Together with Aucas, one of the strongest football clubs in Ecuador, and the private high school John Osteen College, Cristian started a free education project called Fútbol Estudio,” said Angel.

The program had teachers go to specific soccer training facilities to bring classes to the athletes. From 8 a.m. to 5:40 p.m. daily, Fútbol Estudio used an “express” high school curriculum to properly educate the young athletes on the trek to professional soccer careers.

Cifuentes was one of the first students to pass through the program, graduating with a final grade of 8.18 out of 10, ultimately paving the path for his entry on the Ecuadorian under-20 national team in 2019.

Once a needle in a haystack, now an inspiration

Despite the obstacles thrown his way, Cifuentes reached the caliber of play that he always knew he could. In 2019, he competed at the U-20 FIFA World Cup where he scored what was named “Goal of the Tournament” and one of FIFA’s “Top 10 Goals of the Year.”

Cifuentes always takes time to look back on his journey with gratitude. 

As someone who was once given a life-changing opportunity, the 23-year-old star now speaks on the importance of education access – even in the midst of pursuing soccer dreams – to young Ecuadorian kids with big dreams.

“Now I can help financially so that other students from similar backgrounds can get scholarships to pursue their studies,” said Cifu. “Knowing that there’s a boy or girl that will graduate and will soon be playing abroad representing Ecuador is wonderful.”

Monserrat Creamer, who served as minister of education in Ecuador from 2019 to 2021, describes Cifu as a leader for young people intending to follow in his footsteps.

Cifu elevates “the self-esteem of our country, of our kids. And it breaks the vicious cycle of low expectations, low results and low self-esteem,” said Creamer.

Every time he goes back to his home country of Ecuador, he takes time to see the children enrolled in the Fútbol Estudio program. 

“I visit every time I go back to Ecuador. Because of the support, the trust they gave me,” Cifu said. “Because when I thought I wouldn’t be able to continue studying in 2015, they gave me an opportunity."