Dreaming of Football

Helena Matos, recalls her young son, Thiago, going to sleep, clutching a football in his arms. "Often he would still be holding on to it, when he woke next morning!   It was his mascot. He clutched on to it so that his brothers would not take it away."  Despite her pleading advice to try other studies, so he could find a decent job when he grew up, Thiago insisted that football was the only thing worth doing.  "It was his dream," the young mum says, with a shrug, "and now I understand it and accept it."  

If Thiago achieves this dream it will be largely because of EPROCAD, where he was a pupil from age seven and is now, at 15, a trainee instructor.  And, of course, he will be following a noble lineage of great Brazilian footballers - who all came from deprived backgrounds.

Brazilians are the gods of football. The national team, five times winners of the World Cup, dazzles the planet: all lazy yellow-shirted immobility, followed by a sudden pantherine turn of speed, with spellbinding interaction.  They are every football fan's favourite team, after their own nation's.

But look behind that glory and there is despair and misery in the violence-wracked slums and shantytowns of soccer-loving Brazil. Cocaine trafficking is often the main industry of the favelas;  the streets commonly see gunfights between the gangs and homegrown militias, comprised of retired cops or firemen.

These heavily-armed gangs will happily attack police stations.  On a single day in December 2006, 19 people were killed in Brazil's urban strife, including the passengers of a torched bus.  The bloodletting is incessant: worse than criminality, it's almost civil war.  

Often they are hooked on drugs by the age of ten

And it's the children who suffer most of all: often they are hooked on drugs by the age of ten.  Some come to look like wizened old men, when still in their teens. 

It seems an intractable knot of problems. But some brave souls refuse to accept defeat. EPROCAD (Sports Education for Children and Teenagers), part of the now widespread ‘street football' movement (which is supported by FIFA's Football for Hope) is one of these agencies striving to help save the street kids.

EPROCAD is based in Santana de Parneíba. A small hillside town, its air of listlessness and soggy decay is emphasised by frequent tropical downpours.  There is nothing glamorous about the EPROCAD foundation: on the town's outskirts, at the end of a long desolate road, the bleak concrete shacks almost seem designed for ugliness.

But five or six boys and girls are enthusiastically trying to play football, despite rough ground, and the muddy puddles that trap the ball.   The enthusiasm, commitment and vision of these whooping kids is EPROCAD's main human resource.

Working with local schools, the foundation aims to increase the sporting, cultural and above all social skills of Santana's children and youths.  Some, like Thiago, who come as small children, go on to become instructors; and for many of these, EPROCAD becomes a surrogate family.  

Daniel, for example, came here at ten, and is now 20. He has known little else.  We find him on a small enclosed gravel pitch, overseeing boys and girls - who are playing football blindfolded.

 "I want them to hear and feel, not just see..."

Is this, we wonder, the brilliant secret training technique for producing Peles and Kakas?   No, Daniel explains:  "It's a kind of therapy. Here in Brazil people say we are not prejudiced but really we are. We are xenophobic, homophobic.  One of the ways we try to modify that, is through play.  When I put blindfolds on them I want them to hear and feel, not just see.   And so we realise even a blind person can work and play." 

Turning to the kids, he tells them to stop playing: and they meekly obey, pulling off their sweaty blindfolds. He explains his actions.

‘Some of them were cheating, peeking from under their blindfolds to see where the ball was.  That's disrespectful to those following the rules. And learning rules, about successful interaction, is what makes this work.'  In other words: respect, cooperation, and fairness is more important than winning.

In EPROCAD, football is a means not an end - just like the regional  music and dance that Daniel also teaches to the kids. The idea behind  EPROCAD is to reach and educate "the whole child"; the agency claims that some 5000 schoolchildren in the neighbourhood are touched by its benign influence. 

Ironically, the original concept of EPROCAD was much more single-minded, even elitist.  In 1983, when José Massias da Silva and a local businessman started a project called EPROPAR, the idea was to find  underprivileged children, who had the body-type and athleticism to become possible future stars in Olympic sports - including, volleyball, basketball, and athletics, as well as soccer.  The concept evolved in 1994, with the founding of EPROCAD. 

"There were so many children we needed to help...."

Señor da Silva, a serious-looking man, now one of the board of directors, explains why it seemed necessary to widen the net, away from budding Wayne Rooneys and Magic Johnsons. "There were so many children we needed to help in a more general way.  Children who were at risk.  Children who had committed small crimes. Not just the potential number nines for Inter Milan or Arsenal."  He pauses, then adds with a sigh:  "This institution is not enough.  It is impossible to look after everyone in the municipality."

We talk about his hopes for EPROCAD's future.  "My main desire is that it grows!  That it becomes like a drop of water for the children of Brazil.  That it changes the present status of children in Brazil, at least a little.  That is my fight and my work."  

Yet still, of course, it would be nice to discover a star footballer. And the staff think they may have found him in Thiago. Maria Camargo, an educational co-ordinator, tells us this brilliant lad has a special place in her heart.  Her glowing smile confirms it.  "I have known him since he was this small, and pretty misbehaved!.  He has grown not only physically but emotionally. He had learned so many skills." 

From being a tearaway, Thiago has become a fine representative of EPROCAD, interested in everything - but above all in football.  Though technically too young, he was given special dispensation to take part in the recent South American Youth Championships and, according to Maria, did well.   

We ask Thiago himself - a shy, polite teenager - about his dreams for the future.   He looks uncertain, glancing around him, like the five year old seeking comfort from a football, that he once was. 

Finally he says, "Everyone knows I want to be a football player.  But I am not sure if it will work out.   I hope it will.  I will fight for it, and there is time."  This place, he adds, has made all the difference to him.  Half his young life has been spent here.  He is learning how to deal with people, "learning to respect people, my place, your place. Just respect."

When asked about his favourite soccer star, his expression turns dreamy.  "Robinho.  I have no words.  I have no words... Every time I see him playing on TV or being interviewed, I imagine myself not taking his place but playing side by side with him.  I don't know how to explain it.  He is..."

He tails off, into smiling inarticulacy. And then he turns and trots back onto the pitch. Clutching a football very tightly under his arm.