Victor Bernardez hadn't really told the whole story about what it took to escape gang violence to become one of Honduras' top soccer players.

Until recently.

"A lot of people just don't know where I come from and how difficult it has been to get here," the Earthquakes defender said last week in Spanish through a translator.

Soccer's best players have converged on Brazil this month to showcase their dazzling talents in the World Cup. But for the Earthquakes' defender known as "Muma," playing on the grandest stage also provides an opportunity to cast the spotlight on a tiny Central American country that has the world's highest murder rate.

San Jose Earthquakes’ Victor Bernardez (5) celebrates 3-3 goal against Real Salt Lake in the second half at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
San Jose Earthquakes' Victor Bernardez (5) celebrates 3-3 goal against Real Salt Lake in the second half at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. on Saturday, March 15, 2014. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group) ( Josie Lepe )

When Bernardez and teammates open the tournament Sunday against France, they carry the responsibility to ease the suffering for a moment.

It's the least Bernardez, 32, can do. The central defender credits soccer with saving his life after growing up in the Caribbean city of La Ceiba.

He learned soccer playing barefoot on the streets in front of his house or at the beach. Bernardez describes it now as "a beautiful life" with the neighborhood boys.

But his memories also are filled with sadness. Those boys, he says, chose a dangerous path, something far too many Honduran youth experience to this day.

While Bernardez lives comfortably in the Bay Area having forged a successful career, many of his childhood friends are dead. Or in prison.


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"Some of them were great players," he said. "Some could have had a better career than I had had they not chosen the path they did."

The issue gained traction this week when United Nations officials described a surge of children fleeing gang recruitment in Central America to seek asylum in the United States a "humanitarian crisis."

Honduras has turned violent partially because 90 percent of the cocaine and marijuana headed north from Colombia flows through its borders.

San Jose Earthquakes’ Victor Bernardez passes the ball against FC Dallas in the second half at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. on Saturday,
San Jose Earthquakes' Victor Bernardez passes the ball against FC Dallas in the second half at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. on Saturday, May 10, 2014. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group) ( Jim Gensheimer )

For those who remain behind, life can seem hopeless. According to the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, Honduras suffered an average of 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people in 2012. Or put it this way: On average, 20 people a day are murdered in the country sandwiched between El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

By comparison, the United States had 4.7 murders per 100,000 in 2012 -- higher than almost every other developed country.

The figures are more distressing in Honduras' second-largest city, San Pedro Sula. It has a murder rate of 169 per 100,000 people. "In San Pedro Sula, people are mowed down on soccer fields, in shoe factories and at the airport," the Los Angeles Times wrote in December.

Soccer stars such as Bernardez have had enough. He wants to call attention to the depressing and grim situation to help children make better choices. The Hondurans collaborated with the U.S. Agency for International Development last month when the team played a friendly in Washington, D.C. USAID officials hope to work with the team to support programs for children.

Paul Teeple of the nonprofit Partners of the Americas said many of the Honduran players see soccer as their salvation.

"I thank soccer for helping me be able to get away from this path," Bernardez said, with Teeple serving as a translator.

Bernardez agreed to speak by phone last week in Florida just before he left for Brazil.

The burly 6-foot-2, 190-pound defender never had to choose between two roads. He loved soccer so much that the big money of drug trafficking never got a hook into him.

Bernardez idolized a local club player by the name of Rene "Pupa" Martinez. He tagged along with the Vida star whenever he could. They spent so much time together that Vida teammates gave Bernardez the nickname "Muma."

The name has no significance, Muma now says.

But Bernardez packed it with him when he left La Ceiba at 17 to join Honduran club Motagua in the capital, Tegucigalpa. He stayed four seasons before moving to Europe in a career that included representing Honduras in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

San Jose Earthquakes’ Victor Bernardez (5) passes the ball against the Columbus Crew in the first half at Buck Shaw Stadium at Santa Clara University
San Jose Earthquakes' Victor Bernardez (5) passes the ball against the Columbus Crew in the first half at Buck Shaw Stadium at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. on Sunday, April 13, 2014. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) ( Nhat V. Meyer )

As Bernardez's career soared in Tegucigalpa, his friends from the barrio began dying. He knew they were proud of him. But Bernardez couldn't return for their funerals, return to his past.

"Soccer was my life," he said. "It was everything for me."

But he never forgot what might have been had he made different choices. In 2003, some of his friends died in a fire at El Porvenir prison. It was a particularly painful episode for Bernardez, who worked with folks from La Ceiba to donate money and clothes to the victims' families.

Bernardez could not escape one thought: "Had it not been for soccer I could have been there," he said of the prison.

The cumulation of his experiences has led Bernardez down a new road. In Spanish, they like to say "aportar mi grano de arena." It means contribute a grain of sand to a cause.

Make a small difference.

"I've always wanted to be a model for children," Bernardez said. "To be an ambassador for my country and to help young people to make the right choices."

The player lives in Honduras in the offseason of November and December with his wife, Wendy Salgado, a former Miss Honduras.

Their long-term vision is to stay in Central America after Bernardez retires, and try to make a difference.

"There are a lot of young people who are really good players who just need an opportunity to get out," he said.

Just as Muma did.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865.

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Victor Bernardez says many of his childhood friends are dead or in prison.