This time next year we’ll be getting ready to watch the 2014 Word Cup final in the sport’s spiritual home: Brazil. Andrew Dickens embarks on a football odyssey
Ball at my feet, I stride across the stony earth, towering above my opponents like a sporting colossus. Then, approximately two seconds later, I’m dispossessed by a barefooted 13-year-old who skips past three other players before back-heeling the ball into the net. I’m a colossus no more; I’m a lumbering English giant who’s just been schooled in the art of samba football.
This is no ordinary kickabout. My teachers are a bunch of kids from one of the most deprived areas of Rio de Janeiro, which snakes up one of the city’s many hills, high above Copacabana beach. It’s not your usual tourist trap – until three years ago, this rundown pitch, surrounded by rusty fencing was used as an execution site by drug gangs.
So why am I here? Well, for one, the favelas have changed. Rio is still a city of extreme contrast between rich and poor, as the recent political protests have shown, but it’s immeasurably safer than it was.
To get to this pitch, a group of us managed to scale the steps and slopes between the impossibly ramshackle houses and businesses without encountering anything but friendliness and warmth from the locals – something that seems to be a Brazilian trait as common as miniscule swimwear and, of course, an obsessive love of football.
The main reason, however, is that obsession. It’s one year to the 2014 Fifa World Cup final (13 July), when football will be coming home. Forget Baddiel and Skinner. Let’s be honest, if England were football’s home, it’d have a black-and-white telly and a brick outhouse. The home of Jogo Bonito, the Beautiful Game, has a pool, sea view and painted yellow, green and blue. I want to discover the ingredients that make a Brazilian footballer by digging around the grassroots, and the first is the sheer amount of football they play.
“The kids are always playing football,” says Rodrigo, who works for Rio Football Tours, a company that arranges matches between locals and visitors to the city – and our guide today. “You’ll see wherever there is a little space they’ll put two flip-flops one side of the other and they’ll start playing. The space here is small as well, so they have to think fast, especially when dribbling.
And it’s about playing beautifully. Sometimes it’s more important to not only score the goal, but also to score it as beautifully as possible.”
You can see that with my opponents. I say Rodrigo organises these matches, but today he didn’t have to do much work. As soon as we got near the pitch, he just shouted “Futebol!” and, in much the same way as when journalists hear the phrase ‘free bar’, half a dozen kids emerged from nowhere.
And all they want to do is play and win (“When they play foreigners, they feel like they are representing the favela and also Brazil,” says Rodrigo). They don’t like it when we stop for pictures, and they really don’t like it if you misplace a pass or waste an opportunity to score.
And there’s no time-wasting, play-acting or fighting. This game is their love, but it may also be their life one day. While educational opportunities in the favelas are much greater now, football is still
the ultimate ‘way out’. Romario and Adriano are just two players to have emerged from these slums
to become huge stars in European leagues. Others want to follow. That hunger is another ingredient.
“Thirty years ago we didn’t have many leagues to watch on TV. Now you can watch every league,” says Raul Melo, a local historian and guide. “The dream for a young player now is not to be an idol in Brazil but to move to Europe and play there.”
A future in Europe’s major leagues is one they can almost see. If it wasn’t for an inconveniently-placed hill, we’d be able to see the Windsor Atlantica hotel from here; it’s the England team’s base should they qualify for the World Cup. When I ask my opponents if they know any English footballers, the 13-year-old who has just skinned me says, “Walcott.”
Theo Walcott reportedly signed a £100,000-per-week contract with Arsenal this year. Some of these kids may never earn that amount of money in their lifetime.
But not all Brazilian footballers fight their way up from streets. There’s no class divide when it comes to this game. This country doesn’t just eat, drink and sleep football. It is football. Every bar has a wall of screens showing any game they can find: obscure international games, replays of Bundesliga matches. Your five-a-side league has probably been watched by a caipirinha-sipping, Flamengo season ticket-holding granny. Itsbeaches have people playing from dawn until dusk, whether a casual kickabout or their sandy version of Sunday league, barefoot refs and all.
(ShortList's Andrew - in orange - poised to catch the ball in his mouth)
And it’s to the beach I go the next day. Copacabana, specifically. Here, Rodrigo has arranged for me to receive coaching from a professional foot-volley player. Foot-volley, if you haven’t worked it out, is the lovechild of football and volleyball – basically, volleyball without hands.
My coach, also called Rodrigo, begins to put me through my paces and what turns out to be one of the toughest workouts I’ve ever done – moving on sand is the opposite of what I imagine it to be like walking on the moon. There’s no sympathy from Rodrigo, though. He has me running, jumping and stumbling, heading, volleying, chesting and ‘shouldering’ the ball. He shouts at me in one of two English words he knows, “Left! Left!” (you can guess the other), if I favour my stronger right foot, he admonishes me with sign language if I’m too soft with my chest, too firm with my thighs. By the end I’m knackered. And now it’s time for the match.
We find two opponents – an easy thing to do on any Rio beach, one of whom just happens to be
a goalkeeper at Vasco da Gama, one of the local professional clubs.
Suffice to say, even though I can’t understand the scores being shouted, they don’t favour Rodrigo and I, though I do manage to pull off a spectacular overhead scissor-kick that earns the respect – and surprise – of the locals. “Playing on the beach makes you strong, gives you balance and subtlety,” Coach Rodrigo tells me, via the other Rodrigo. “It makes you calm. You play with instinct, you don’t think too much.”
A cocktail or two later and I head back to my hotel – the Windsor Atlantica. The next morning, I go to
the pool, where I find the England team catching a few rays ahead of that weekend’s friendly against Brazil. Lying there, eyes closed, is Theo Walcott.
I can’t help but wonder if he knows that there’s a ridiculously talented teenager living in a shack, a mile from here, who knows who he is. And I can’t help but wonder if, one day and on a far grander stage, he’ll be skinning Walcott like he skinned me.
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