Ex-Brazil international Rai did not lack invitations to stay in football after playing his last match some 12 years ago. After taking up a director’s position at his beloved Sao Paulo, he received a number of other offers, only to turn them all down and take an entirely different direction.
Moving away from the game he graced, the stylish midfielder devoted his considerable energies to social projects, helping to set up the non-governmental organisation Fundação Gol de Letra, which now provides support for nearly 1,300 disadvantaged children in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
His selfless efforts to put something back into society were recognised in February, when he was presented with the Sport for Good Award at the 2012 Laureus Awards in London. Discussing that accolade, his new calling in life and the state of the game in Brazil, the former Sao Paulo, Paris Saint-Germain and Brazil star gave an exclusive interview to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Tell us about the Laureus Awards. Did you expect to win the prize?
Rai: A team from Laureus paid a visit to the Foundation a year ago and they had a very good look at everything. They weren’t there because of the award. It was just something they do on a regular basis, to find out about projects around the world. They were pretty impressed, and about 20 days before the ceremony they sent out the invitation and asked for photos of the project. They didn’t say anything else, though and that’s when I began to suspect something. Even so, it still came as a surprise, and I was pleased to receive recognition for a project I’ve been putting an awful lot of energy into for a good few years now. I was also happy to see they value the charity initiatives set up by sportspeople. It’s an incentive for others to go out and do the same.
What was it like to be at the ceremony and meet the other prizewinners?
All the awardwinners went to the see the British Prime Minister. [Novak] Djokovic was there, and so were academy members like Boris Becker and Emerson Fittipaldi. It was an honour to be with champions like them, each with their own story to tell. I was very happy to be there because it really tied in with the idea behind the Gol de Letra project. As sportspeople we can do a lot for society when we come together. It’s not perfect but we’ve got the power to get others involved and reach out to people, and I could see that they all felt the same way too, which was great.
How much of a highlight is this Laureus Award in your career?
It’s very special. I’m in another phase of my life now and it’s a big award for this second part of my career. I’ve had recognition in Brazil too, from UNESCO, and I think this Laureus award is a return on all the hard work that’s gone into getting this project off the ground. Just before I stopped playing I started to think about the projects I wanted to get involved in. And as Brazil was going through this whole new democratic process, I thought about taking part in a project to improve social justice in the country. Leonardo [the former AC Milan and Brazil midfielder] had similar ideas and so we decided to work together. As I said before, I’ve always thought that the values of sport can be a force for good in society.
With the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ coming up, this is a good time to get more social projects under way, isn’t it?
Absolutely. This is a special time in Brazil’s sporting history and I think it’s going to provide a boost for the things that need to be done. I hope it all helps bring about social change through sport. That’s the objective of events and awards like this: to promote projects like Gol de Letra and put the spotlight on them so that more people get involved.
You mentioned Leonardo, who went into coaching and is now director of football at PSG. Did you ever think about taking a similar path?
I did and I had a few offers. I was less keen on coaching because it’s a bit frenetic, but I think I’ve got the credentials to do it and I might be tempted one day. As a director I had a spell at Sao Paulo and PSG sounded me out five years ago, though via a different potential buyer. I think I’d take something on as long as it wasn’t too time-consuming, which is not often the case. I’m very happy with the way things are at the moment, with the Foundation, an association called Atletas pela Cidadania and a new school, and I’m not thinking about going straight back into football. Obviously I want to stay close to the game and I’ll always have links with it, but more on the fringes.
Turning to Brazilian football now, what’s your view on the country’s coaches? Do you think there’s anyone with a global vision who change the way the game’s played here?
I think there are people abroad who’ve got a lot to offer in general. Who knows, maybe Leonardo will come back one day or others who are also picking up experience. These days footballers prepare themselves better for what comes after their careers and I think we’re going to have some people who can contribute coming through. I also feel we’re going through a transitional phase in terms of coaches. There aren’t many good, reliable ones, and the same goes for the players, whose skill levels aren’t what they were. Those two factors both have a negative impact and you end up having fewer teams who play the game the right way and take risks. There are a lot of old coaches around, who haven’t kept up with the game, and a few young coaches who haven’t kicked on.
Do you think that’s all having an impact on the national team?
Yes I do. There’s that and then you’ve got the fact that other countries are moving on. Brazil are no longer the best or the favourites to win the big tournaments. They’re just another candidate now. There are a lot of countries who are as good as Brazil, which wasn’t the case before. Both the team and the fans need to get it into their heads that Brazil are not as dominant as they have been at other times.
How do you think A Seleção is coming along? Do you feel the team and the likes of Neymar, Ganso, Leandro Damiao and Lucas will be ready for 2014?
The Olympics are coming up and that’s going to be a good test for us. We’ve got a fine generation of players, with some above-average talent. They need to show whether they’re ready or not, though I think we’ll see some other exciting youngsters come through before 2014.