The Parisian suburb of Levallois is better known for its bustling industrial past, but sport and charity took centre stage there on Sunday 13 May as the Gol de Letra Foundation held its fifth annual Futsal Trophy event. Run by former Brazilian football stars Rai and Leonardo, who helped the Auriverde to the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ title, the tournament raised vital funds for children living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

"Poverty is the absence of opportunities to develop one's own talents," wrote Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado, author of several humanist works, and for Rai and Leonardo that phrase has underpinned almost ten years of work. Having seen the truth of those words for themselves, the duo set up the Gol de Letra Foundation back in 1998, and at the time they had just 100 children under their wing.

"Brazil has the 15th largest economy in the world and 50 million of its people live under the poverty line, including 27 million who are illiterate," Leonardo told in an exclusive interview. "Our goal isn't to develop cultural professionals, but to open children up to alternative ways of approaching education and help them discover their role as citizens."

From a quick glance at the figures, it becomes obvious that their efforts are bearing fruit. "Today, Gol de Letra has 1,400 children in our two centres in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, plus 70 paid employees looking after them," explained Guillaume Cabanes, responsible for the Foundation's French branch, their principal outpost in Europe along with a much smaller office in Italy. "Those figures represent around 7,000 families." 

School attendance
Gol de Letra's purview is broad and stretches far beyond trying to help children in need. As Rai told, "We work a lot with mothers in difficult neighbourhoods. The goal isn't to create a substitute for school but to run a genuine social programme within communities." To be considered for entry to one of the centres, children must attend school, and families are encouraged to put their infants through the education system by having their health costs taken care of, as opposed to the distribution of study grants.

As a result, school attendance has risen threefold among children in neighbourhoods where the Foundation is active, and just as remarkable has been the 45 per cent increase in adults pursuing education and the 30 per cent drop in domestic violence. Violence in general has fallen by between 30 and 40 per cent.

In concrete terms, the children are looked after for three-and-a-half hours a day - public schools in Brazil are only open half the day - and they take part in sports as well as cultural activities including literature, painting and theatre. For each child the project lasts seven years. However, as Guillaume Cabanes pointed out, "Our efforts will only really have paid off when our admission figures begin to subside."

A new centre ought to open its doors very soon in one of the most deprived favelas in Rio de Janeiro, but Rai and Leonardo's original vision was never to spread far and wide. Instead, the duo hoped to develop a viable approach that could be used by other associations, and their work was given massive validation on that front in 2001, when UNESCO declared Gol de Letra,a global education model. In addition, FIFA is currently considering integrating the Foundation into its Football for Hope programme.

"The Cafu, Seedorf, Bebeto and Milan foundations have all been built to some extent on our model," noted Leonardo, and his former Seleçao team-mate is just as proud of what the pair have achieved. "We've even got a seat on the Brazilian government's Youth Council," he pointed out.

Thanks to the futsal event held last weekend, the Foundation was able to raise 15 per cent of its annual budget (1.5 million euros), a considerable sum that has already been allocated a specific role. As with all donations Gol de Letra receives, complete transparency is the order of the day.