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For Brazil's Soccer Stars, Careers Often Begin On Makeshift Fields

For Brazil's Soccer Stars, Careers Often Begin On Makeshift Fields

Posted by Juan Gavasa on May 20, 2014

The road to World Cup glory in Brazil doesn't start in fancy soccer clubs or private schoolyards. It often begins in places like this poor neighborhood called Rio Pequeno in Sao Paulo and on a dirt lot, where a group of children are playing soccer.

Brazil is hosting the World Cup, which starts in less than a month, and the country is also favored to win. Brazil is already a five-time champion and it has played in every World Cup since the tournament's inception.

It's no exaggeration to say that most every young boy in this country dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. The children kicking a ball around the lot in Rio Pequeno are no different.

The boys in the ragtag group shout excitedly about who their favorite players are.

Felipe de Lucca Mendes Ferreira, 11, is small for his age, but he swaggers confidently toward my microphone as if he's already used to giving comments to the press after a match.

Soccer "is a way of having fun," he says. "I want to be a big, famous player when I grow up."

In Brazil, every open patch of grass or concrete yard is a potential field of dreams where kids play with whatever they have on hand.

In Sao Paulo's soccer museum there's even an exhibit dedicated to the variety of makeshift balls used — a doll's head, a ball made out of spooled tape, or tightly wound up socks. If it is round and they can kick it, they will use it.

Last year, a documentary called Pelada, Futebol na Favela focused on the early lives of famous footballers in Brazil.

Soccer greats like Ronaldo and this year's projected World Cup star Neymar talk about how they got their starts in the dirt lots of their poor neighborhoods.

Narrator Silvio Luiz says that the reason so many wonderful soccer players come from the slums is that they learn how to be tough and "treacherous soccer players there, which is something they can't learn at a soccer school."

These rags-to-riches tales live in the popular imagination and fuel the dreams of fame and glory, not just of the kids but also of their parents.

Being a professional footballer in Brazil used to be seen as something the poor would only aspire to. But with the TV deals, international careers and million-dollar salaries of many Brazilian players, the middle class and the rich now want to get in on the game too. In the past, recruitment and training were more haphazard, but these days it has become professionalized.

"The sports federations, the government here, unlike in other countries don't discover and train soccer players," said Ronildo Santos, a sports journalist at Bandeirantes TV in Sao Paulo. "And unlike in the U.S., there is no school system which allows you to become a professional athlete through high school and college teams. Here it's the football clubs that do all the work."

One of the most famous clubs in Brazil is Palmeiras. To get to the Palmeiras first division soccer team's training camp, you have to go along a bumpy dirt road on the outskirts of Sao Paulo.

This past week, 11- and 12-year-old kids have their names called out as they stand nervously waiting to be judged during a three-day tryout.

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