The community of Caju in Rio de Janeiro never thought they would see a day like it. Two-time FIFA World Cup™ winner and joint-top scorer in the tournament’s history Ronaldo stepped out onto a stadium pitch in the heart of the favela, and welcomed young participants from all around the world.
“It’s great to be here in the community of Caju, celebrating the power of football through Football For Hope,” Il Fenomeno said. “Football really changed my life, it was very important for me as a child. I didn’t have a lot of time for formal education but the school of football taught me a lot. I’d like you all to make the most of this great opportunity. I wish the best of luck to all the participants in the festival.”
The words of the legendary No9 were greeted with rapturous applause and that trademark grin spread across his face. 192 youngsters, representing social organisations from 27 nations smiled along with him and the day was all about this remarkable cross-section of kids. Spain and Barcelona star Gerard Pique, ambassador for FIFA’s Football for Hope initiative, noted as much in his message to the crowd.
“I feel privileged to welcome the many young leaders here in Caju today,” Pique said in a video played to the crowd. “You have come so far to be here, overcoming many challenges in life. I hope that the festival will be an enriching and unforgettable experience for all of you, giving you lots of inspiration and ideas to continue your path.”
In welcoming those that had made the incredible journey to the favela, FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter spoke about Caju being an important World Cup venue, as he followed Ronaldo and Pique in addressing the crowd.
“I would like to welcome the 32 delegations playing here for this special competition which is also a World Cup and I must say how pleased I am to have you here,” FIFA President Blatter said. “It is said that the FIFA World Cup 2014 is played in 12 different venues. This is not true. Here we are in Caju and this is stadium number 13 of this World Cup. Football connects people and football gives you the opportunity to be together. What’s exceptional is that in this game played at the Festival, there are no referees, it’s the essence of football.”
That final note by FIFA President Blatter would make most football fans sit up and take note. A game without officials, how could this be? As the matches got underway, and with FIFA President Blatter and Ronaldo looking on, it was clear that the spirit of fair play was key to the tournament. An intriguing clash took place, with teams from Germany and Brazil facing off ahead of the World Cup semi-final between the countries.
“It’s like they’re in a movie and it’s all rushing by,” David Breimer, working for Kickfair and head of the German delegation at the event said. “We have a captain who is in goal. He likes to say he’s [Gianluigi] Buffon. He liked the speech that he made when Italy went out of the World Cup because it was a very honourable speech. Footballers are the role models and Buffon is an excellent one.”
Also watching the latest edition of this age-old clash was the first woman to be elected on to the FIFA Executive Committee Moya Dodd, who noted another key aspect of the Football For Hope initiative.
“It’s fantastic to see that every team here is accessible to both boys and girls and see how they can learn from each other and play football in the spirit of fair play,” Dodd said. “It’s a fantastic tournament. Men’s football is so big and so established in so many countries that finding a place for women’s football to thrive and grow can always be a challenge, but big tournaments like the World Cup are an opportunity to cross-promote.
“Here at Football For Hope you see mixed gender football taking place,” Dodd continued. “It’s great to see that the women’s game is represented here and is part of the party.”
One of those joining the party in Caju was Joyce Lorenz, a 15-year-old who played for Kickfair in their victory against one of the host Brazilian sides Instituto Bola Pra Frente.
“It was an extraordinary experience,” Joyce said. “I didn’t expect to win the first match. I’m very happy to be here to play, make some new friends and to be with all my friends from the delegation too. My prediction for the [World Cup] semi-final? Germany will win 2-1 for sure.”
Somebody not necessarily sharing that opinion was youngster Gabriel de Jesus, who was on the losing side in the Germany-Brazil Football For Hope match.
“It’s a unique opportunity I’ve had to be with a lot of new friends from different countries and to be a part of a big event like this,” Gabriel said. “It makes me happy because now I feel proud to represent Bola Pra Frente. I think Brazil will win [the semi-final] 2-0.”
Whatever the children’s predictions for the World Cup semi-final, they know the score does not matter in their game. The important message from their own ‘World Cup’ was put across best by Breimer.
“These kids have been chosen [to come to Brazil] because they are themselves role models, organising tournaments for their peers back home. We want to use football as a platform for discussion, reflection and education.”