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Rediff News  All News  » Sports » For Brazilian kids, soccer is a way out of slums

For Brazilian kids, soccer is a way out of slums

June 30, 2006 16:12 IST

Vila Brasilandia, a poor, remote neighborhood in Sao Paulo, has been gripped by World Cup fever. Rough portraits of the Brazilian squad adorn walls. Green and yellow national flags hang overhead.

The decorations lend a festive atmosphere to the otherwise gloomy vision of sidewalks cluttered by wheelbarrows, scrap metal, and cardboard.

In the midst of a maze of unpaved roads that don't appear on city maps is the Espaco Crianca Esperanca (Child Hope Space), a project jointly run by a Brazilian group called Sou Da Paz, or I Stand for Peace; the Globo television network; the city government; and UNESCO, a United Nations cultural agency. It offers athletic, artistic, and academic programs to kids and young adults.

Soccer is the most popular activity. Many kids idolize soccer stars who grew up in their neighborhood or others like it where shantytowns mix with working-class row houses.

In a place like Brasilandia, where half of kids under 19 have not completed elementary school and juvenile homicides are routine, the community center offers an alternative to a life of crime, and for a lucky few, a route to fame and fortune.

"Soccer is a way out," said Roberto Carlos da Silva, who coaches field soccer at the Espaco, and has worked with stars such as Deco, a Brazilian who now plays on the Portuguese national team. "The time they are on the pitch, is, more than anything, time they are off the streets."

Just last week, Silva discovered what had happened to a 15-year-old who had not shown up to practice for several weeks. The mother came to let him know that her son had been caught stealing a cell phone and sent to juvenile jail.

The staff at the Espaco hope that involvement in soccer and other activities at the center will make such cases far less common.

"Today's big goal is to transform this place; to bring safety not through walls or armed guards" - a reference to the facility's set-up - "but through well-being and community. And we want to make the kids feel like actors in this transformation," says Rodrigo Damasceno, a project director.

Most of the kids who play soccer come by every day. One of them, 12-year-old Lucas, is considered one of the facility's "revelations". His coach, Orlando Alves Ferreira, a former goalie for Club Portuguesa, wants to show him to scouts once he grows a little more. Right now Lucas is just shy of four feet (122 cm).

Lucas plays forward, scores lots of goals, cheers for the Corinthians club, and knows the name of every player in all 32 teams in this year's Cup. While his teammates say they would like to be firefighters if a soccer career does not pan out, Lucas is unwavering: "I won't be anything else."

The hope is real. The boys know that Viola, who was on Brazil's 1994 winning team, grew up in Vila Brasilandia. Vitor Augusto, 11, who plays on the same scrimmage team as Lucas, says his cousin, Jefferson, 19, now plays for a team in Japan. Jorge Luiz, 13, prides himself on the fact that his father played for Palmeiras' second-division team.

Though Silva estimates that less than 5 percent of the kids he coaches will ever play the sport professionally, he tells his players, "If you don't become a player, at least become a human being."

"Soccer is a beautiful game. It seeps into all areas of your life and can teach you to be an honest, kind, good person," Silva said.

Daniela Perdomo in Sao Paulo
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