Just off the bustling Avenida Francisco Morato in the humble Sao Paulo district of Ferreira, you will find the narrow iron gate and passageway that marks the entrance to the Clube Pequeninos do Jockey. The renowned facility, which occupies the entire block, is a hive of activity the morning FIFA.com comes to visit, with a stream of seven and eight-year-olds heading inside.
At the foot of the stairs they stop to greet the 73-year-old man who is waiting for them. "Hello, Senhor Guima," they say one by one, to which the man replies: "Hi, Marcelo, good to see you. How are you today, Pedro? How is your cold, Paulo?" And so on...
The Senhor Guima in question is Jose Guimaraes Junior, the man who back in 1970 conceived and founded Pequeninos do Jockey, a club as simple in its ethos as it is impeccable in its organisation. The main facility is located only a few kilometres from Sao Paulo FC's Estadio Morumbi, and houses the football pitches where a multitude of children between the ages of 5 and 16 have their twice-weekly training sessions. These are divided into five age categories, with four teams in each, ranging from the first XI, which represents the club in national and international tournaments, to the beginners side for the newest arrivals.
Today we have 600 children. Not only do I know their names, I know who they are, what kind of personalities they have, and the problems they are having at home.
"Today we have 600 children who come to come to the Pequeninos on a regular basis," Guimaraes tells FIFA.com, after welcoming 22 kids from the mamadeira (babes) category that have just arrived for their morning session. Asked if he knew all 600 kids by name, Guimaraes seems slightly offended.
"Of course. Not only do I know their names, I know who they are, what kind of personalities they have, and the problems they are having at home. There was a time when we had more than 3,500 athletes, and then, yes, it was impossible to get to know them all. That was one of the reasons we decided to reduce our intake again," he said.
The motivation that led Guimaraes to found the club is what makes it so special, and the sign over the main entrance sums it up perfectly: 'Here we transform small children into big athletes and giant human beings'. And it is no mere slogan either. Guima is proud that the institution has won almost 200 international titles and given the world such talents as Ze Roberto and Julio Baptista (see column on the right), although he prefers to focus on the thousands of children who, though not destined to become professional players, have left the club better prepared for the challenges of life, thanks to football.
"We interview every single child that passes through our doors, and get to know their families and exactly what type of problems they're facing. And believe me, there's nothing we haven't seen. When the kids first join a team, our coaches, coordinators and social assistants give equal importance to their academic development, closely monitoring their grades, reports and attendance.
"It doesn't matter if someone is the best player in his category, if he is not progressing with his studies, he doesn't get to play. They can continue to train all right, but until their results improve, they don't get to do the thing they dream about the most, which is playing a real game," Guimaraes explained.
With a real spring in his step, Señhor Guima then invites FIFA.com to have a look round the club's neighbouring facility just a few minutes away. The property was given to the Pequeninos do Jockey club by the Sao Paulo municipality, but its infrastructure has been funded by the tireless efforts of Guimaraes and his innumerable helpers over recent years.
In this unit, there is an even greater focus on the social side of their work. With grounds bordering a very deprived community, the football pitch is available for neighbourhood games, while its computer centre has 18 PCs with internet access that are available free of charge.
Beside the pitch are the classrooms in which music and capoeira (a Brazilian dance) lessons are provided, also without charge. "The only thing we ask people to pay is a modest monthly contribution towards the costs of the child's training, as it's important to make sure both children and parents are committed.
"Of course, we take individual circumstances into account, reducing the fee for those with fewer resources and in many cases waiving it altogether," said the founder, who finishes our tour by saying: "The Pequeninos do Jockey has always worked that way. We try to give people a future, and that's not something you can put a price on - either for them or us."