After 10 days in Brazil, I’m back home in Germany where the butter is unsalted. What a week and a half it has been. Let me tell you more about it.
The whole thing started back in January when some friends and I decided to go to Brazil for the FIFA World Cup. But we didn’t want to go to Brazil with a consumer mindset, trying to make it a “good experience” for ourselves by watching games in the stadiums. Many of the poor population in Brazil were forced to relocate so that there would be room for the stadiums of which Brazil built twelve, even though eight would’ve been enough. So we wanted to do something for the people of Brazil. Mainly for the impoverished youth in the favelas of São Paulo. That’s when we started Project São Paulo.
Project São Paulo is a football tournament for the youngsters in one of Brazil’s largest favelas. We thought that they should have a chance to enjoy the World Cup as well, and not dwell on the fact that FIFA took away their homes. We worked together with seven local ministries who helped bring together eight under-15 football teams. For five days, they battled for the championship in the heat of the Brazilian winter.
The favela, called Vila Missionária, has two turf fields, which are owned by the local drug lords. So we had to get permission from them to use the fields for the tournament. These guys are members of the Primeiro Comando do Capital (PCC), which is the largest Brazilian criminal organization. They’re known for some really brutal things that I won’t mention here. But for some reason, they were totally excited to give us the fields and they said:
We love your project, and we want to support it 100%. If you need any help from us, we’re right here. And don’t worry, if someone harms you, we’ll take care of them. You are protected.
We had security guards by the fields who kept an eye out for us, and they didn’t look like police officers. So I guess they were PCC guys. But they kept us and the players safe.
I was assigned to the eventual sixth place holders of the tournament. My team may have not consisted of the best footballers, but according to a quick study I conducted, they were statistically the chillest, coolest, and funniest teenagers in all of Brazil. I taught them how to pass and move, they taught me how to dance. I taught them how to sing “We Will Rock You” and they taught me how to dance. I taught them how to respect each other, how to keep your chin up after a loss, and how to play strategically. And they taught me how to dance.
I also learned enough Portuguese to make a fool of myself in front of my guys, but that was alright because not one of them could pronounce my name correctly. My names were Ian, João, Jo, and Gringo. They challenged me to a little game they call rolinho in which you try to pass the ball through another player’s legs as many times as possible. I successfully rolinhoed all 14 members of my team in a training session, after which they dubbed me Gringo Pelé. What an honor.
Another thing that’s worth mentioning is that Vila Missionária has a large drug trade. You could always smell the distinct odor of marijuana wherever you were. However, one day during the tournament, one of the local drug dealers came up to one of our tournament leaders and said:
The drug trade has gone down 80% because of what you guys are doing here.
You’d think that the drug dealers would be upset about this statistic because we were basically reducing their income, but they were super stoked about the fact that less people were taking drugs, because they know that the drugs are destroying their community.
A total of 130 kids attended Project São Paulo, and my friends and I got to interact with them and change some lives. It was just an idea we had seven months ago, and now it has turned into an annual tournament with players and coaches from all over São Paulo. Some teams have even started to do weekly training sessions at Vila Missionária. And some of these kids are really good at football, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of them get scouted and signed by professional teams in the area.
After the tournament was over, the Project São Paulo team played against the tournament’s best players, coaches, and a few other Brazilian players. I scored the first two goals and assisted twice. The Project São Paulo team went on to beat the tournament MVPs 6:4.
So now I’ve played football with Germans, Brazilians and Americans. The Germans play strategically and rather slow, trying to build up the play from the back. The Brazilians play with the flow of the game and are insanely creative with their dribbling and passing, so you never really know what to expect. The Americans are good at… never giving up.
A few days after Project São Paulo had ended, some of us were invited to play against some footballers on an indoor court. That’s where the Brazilian magic happens. We lost the first few games but slowly got used to the pace and style of play, and eventually we beat the best teams 3 times in a row. The Gringos know how to joga bonito.
Shortly after that, we played against some semi-professional footballers on a full size turf field in São Paulo. I got to play center midfield, my favorite position, and I got two assists in a 4:3 win. One of Yugoslavia’s ex-national players, who is now a licensed FIFA coach, watched the game and congratulated us on our performance. It was a good day.
We also got to go to Rio de Janeiro for two days and walk on the Copacabana and attend Rio’s massive Fan Fest. We witnessed USA’s loss to Belgium and saw Ruud Van Nistelrooy sitting in a van by the Christ Redeemer.
All in all, it was an unforgettable trip. I have amazing friends with whom I made crazy awesome memories. I’m glad I got to be an older brother to the kids in São Paulo. Thanks for the all the support and I hope I get to go back to the land of football in the near future.