RIO DE JANEIRO —
Watching a group of girls bellowing out the Brazilian national anthem from the top of the hill at the high point of Vidigal favela, the slogan on the back of their t-shirts was mightily powerful: “I am somebody.”
It felt particularly poignant as one of the girls, Aninha, articulated how not so long ago she felt more like a nobody. Aninha is 12 years old. Her life has been turned around by football. Aninha comes from Penha, in northern Rio, one of the toughest areas in a tough city still troubled by violence and drugs — despite the fact that a pacifying unit arrived in 2010 to try to clamp down on the traffickers who held the streets in their reckless grip.
The 2014 World Cup has certainly captured the imagination of the children of Vidigal favela.
The idea that Aninha might make something of herself did not occur to her for much of her life, until she discovered a project called Favela Street. Their mission is to use football as an escape, an alternative, to the life that seemed inevitable to someone like Aninha. Reformed drug traffickers are trained to coach football to kids who are at risk of falling in with dangerous crowds. Through the project they find friends, empathy, and positive motivation.
"Before the project I was just hanging around in the streets with nothing to do," Aninha explained. "I didn’t want to know nothing about nothing. Maybe I kicked a ball around but I didn’t have any focus. Now I do. Now I know exactly what I want to do." She grins broadly as she explains she wants to be a professional football player. In answer to the question as to who she most admires, she does not choose Neymar, the national poster boy. Her role model is Marta, the Brazilian who is the shining light of the women’s game who was voted the best player in the world five consecutive times.
Brazil legend Bebeto was one of the main attractions at the Street Child World Cup.
Aninha and some of the new friends she now describes as “family” represented Brazil in the Street Child World Cup, which took place in Rio a couple of months before the FIFA event that is a multi-million dollar industry rolled into town. More than 230 former street children from around the world, representing 19 different countries came to compete. The Brazilian girls won, although for Aninha the opportunity to meet people from all around the globe was an additional success that was profoundly meaningful.
The seriousness of the situation some of these children find themselves in was tragically exposed when one of the players was killed. Rodrigo was due to captain the Brazil boys’ team at the Street Child World Cup. He had managed to tear his life away from the streets — but was shot by drug traffickers. It was his 14th birthday.
With the World Cup up and running, on the eve of Brazil’s quarterfinal victory over Colombia, Aninha and her friends got the opportunity to take on a group of illustrious opponents. Some ex-internationals, the likes of France’s Patrick Vieira, Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro, England’s Glenn Hoddle and Ian Wright, played in mixed teams with the girls on Ipenama beach.
Stars such as World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro and England legend Glenn Hoddle were at Ipenama beach.
Frankly, it spoke volumes that the girls were not overwhelmed by the experience. These ex-pros didn’t mean a great deal to them, but the Favela Street kids enjoyed the kick-around with fearlessness and zest. They were not easily fazed. At the age of 12, Aninha, and her friends, take a lot in their impressive stride.
Photos from provided by Getty Images.