World Cup fever puts soccer-crazy refugee in the Panama spotlight

News Stories, 6 July 2006

Sportscaster Tomas Begazo (with tie) appears on the set of Panama's World Cup TV programme, "Pitazo Final." The Peruvian refugee's love of football has helped him overcome hardship and find fame in his new home. Photo courtesy of T.Begazo

PANAMA CITY, Panama, July 6 (UNHCR) Tomas Begazo's passion for football has taken him on an incredible journey over the past 15 years, helping him overcome hardship and fear to find fame as a sportscaster in his new home.

Begazo has been firmly in the public spotlight here in Panama during the past four weeks of World Cup soccer action, appearing each night as a pundit on the popular "Pitazo Final" show on local Channel 4 television and writing a daily column for the national newspaper, Mi Diario, on the titanic struggles in Germany.

Life has not always been so sweet for the 45-year-old Peruvian soccer nut. Born in Lima, Tomas graduated from the national school for football coaches and worked as a professor of sports psychology in Peru. But his university days came to an abrupt end in 1990, when the government arrested Begazo and accused him of collaborating with a left-wing group. His wife gave birth to their first son while Begazo was being held in a maximum security prison.

Unable to substantiate its claims, the government released Begazo after eight months but kept him under surveillance. Afraid that the authorities were planning to take him back into custody, Begazo and his wife made the difficult decision to flee their homeland.

In January 1991, they left for Panama. Begazo had heard the country was open-minded and welcomed people from other cultures they arrived with just the clothes on their back and US$8 in cash.

"The hardest part was the economic situation we had to live through, not knowing where the next meal would come from and at times having to go for days without food," recalls Begazo, who often went hungry so that his wife and child could eat.

Begazo and his wife began to take odd jobs to earn enough money to meet their basic needs. They also contacted the government's National Office for Assistance to Refugees, or ONPAR, which gave Begazo US$450 over three months while his application for refugee status was being processed.

"Even though it was only a little, it was very helpful," Begazo says of the money, which was provided under a UNHCR-funded programme. "Without this additional aid, we would not have been able to survive."

Through all his trials and tribulations, the refugee never lost his passion for football and found work as a sports psychology professor at Panama's own school for football coaches in Panama City. Seven years after arriving in Panama, he approached a local TV station and offered his services as a sports analyst.

Sceptical at first, the station invited him to film a training programme about the rules of football. Begazo impressed everyone with his knowledge of the finer points of the game and was hired as a regular analyst.

Since then his career has picked up and he has come into his own during the World Cup, which kicked off in Munich on June 9 and comes to a climax during Saturday's final between Italy and France in Berlin on Sunday. Begazo's Pitazo Final show has been drawing big audiences every night.

Although his success comes down in large part to his own ambition and hard work, Begazo is grateful to Panama for the opportunities it has given him and other refugees. "And UNHCR has never forgotten about me, even after I was recognized by the Panamanian government as a refugee and had become integrated into Panamanian society," he adds.

Begazo and his whole family are recognized refugees and he still feels it is not safe for him to return. The eldest son is 15 years old and has a passion for music to match his father's love of football. He plays guitar for a rock band in Panama City and will soon start studying at a music conservatory. Begazo also has a five-year-old boy, who was born in Panama. His wife writes for local newspapers.

Despite his success, Begazo still has a dream: to work as a technical coach with a professional team. A natural teacher, he gets the most joy from being able to train children in the sport he loves.

But he is content. The events of the past have taught him not to take things for granted and not to let small problems weigh too heavily on his mind. As for the future, its uncertainty no longer bothers him. "I have no real fears here," Begazo says. "I have gone through many fears in the past and I overcame them." Meantime, he'll continue writing on, and analysing, the beautiful game.

By Kristin Detwiler in Panama City, Panama