As much as he enjoyed watching the quarterfinals of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2007 from a privileged spot in the players' tribune, seven-year-old Gabriel Souza Simoes Melo barely knew that his afternoon of awe and fascination was just about to start when the final whistle was blown.
Gabriel was one of the 58 boys and girls, aged seven to 15, from three disadvantaged communities of Rio de Janeiro who were brought by non-governmental organisation 'Obra Social da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro' for a wonderful activity on Thursday in the Copacabana Beach stadium courtesy of FIFA and its Partner, adidas, as part of the Football for Hope Movement.
A guided tour through the stadium's facilities ended with the youngsters finally taking to the pitch, where a group of big name beach soccer instructors was waiting for them: Spain's head coach and FIFA beach soccer instructor Joaquin Alonso; Spanish stars Amarelle and Nico; and Cicero, one of the stars of 2007 Brazilian Cup champions Fluminense. These same stars led a one-hour beach soccer clinic that went way beyond merely teaching the technical aspects of the game.
Before the children had even received their kits from the instructors, let alone touched the ball, Gabriel was already wide-eyed with wonder. "Wow! The goal is huge from down here", was his first impression. When the boys and girls had already used the tournament's actual changing rooms to change into their first-rate uniform, the group was broken up by the mentors in four stations, each of them featuring a drill: carrying the ball; passing it in the air; acrobatic shots on goal and a pig-in-the-middle circle. Every five minutes, the groups alternated.
"That is what is great about this kind of event," said Joaquín Alonso. "Not only are the children in contact with the game, they also exercise their capability of organization and of working together as a group. Not to mention that they have loads of fun."
Once the half-hour drills were concluded, the pitch was divided in two, and the group into teams, for the other part of the clinic: a kickabout where the mythical Brazilian innate knack for flamboyant tricks and flicks was evident to all. "It is incredible how they look for the different play, how they enjoy beating their man one-on-one," noticed an amazed Amarelle, a dribbler par excellence himself. "Just look at the smiles: it seems like slaloming with the ball is what all of them love the most."
And it definitely is. It is pointless to ask whether these boys and girls want to grow up to become professional football players. You are better off simply asking who they want to be like. "On the beach, like Benjamin. On the grass, like Robinho", replies Gabriel, now properly familiarised with the size of the goal after finding the back of the net twice with volleys converted from Amarelle's throws.
There was already this contented, could-not-ask-for-anything-more look in those young faces when they gathered in the tournament's players' lounge after the clinic for a rather noisy snack-time - courtesy of 58 exhilarated children and dozens of packs of popcorn. But there was still more joy in store. When the youngsters were told that a farewell gift would be handed out to them in the way out, you could sense the atmosphere thickening with smirks and chitchats. The steps in the hallway leading to the exit were nervous; the eyes trying to identify what was the final present to enlighten that memorable day.
Like the goal when Gabriel saw it from the first time, the adidas beach soccer ball was almost too big for these children to handle. And so was their joy.