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Jun 20, 2014

Kickin' it with Brazil's next superstars

ESPN FC columnist David Hirshey and Roger Director, an Emmy-nominated writer/producer, are blogging about their misadventures in Salvador, Brazil, during the first round of the World Cup. Pray for them.

The way to the soccer clubhouse in the favela of São Marcos leads you through garbage-slathered streets, roaming, mangy dogs and hollowed-out buildings.

Then a narrow, wobbly, two-story staircase must be navigated. When you reach the top, you step into the clubhouse, a wooden room not much bigger than a matchbox with exposed ceiling beams. Its floor is grimy, loose linoleum. The walls are papered with yellowing posters and clippings of the club's successes on the soccer field. A thicket of trophies crowd against an old refrigerator, and a tiny, adjacent alcove holds four bunk beds with paper-thin mattresses for those who have, literally, nowhere else to go when the games end.

The steaming air seems trapped in here, making it feel like an oven, but the 35 kids sitting cross-legged on the floor in their red T-shirts and black shorts do not seem fazed. Not today, anyway.

Games in favelas are always hotly contested and are seen for what they are: an escape.
Games in favelas are always hotly contested and are seen for what they are: an escape.

We had come to the favela with our Brazilian mission leader, Wilson Egidio, to bring soccer equipment -- bags of it, some 120 pounds of shoes, balls, nets and shin guards that we had transported from New York. Wilson, a former Brazilian professional soccer player, who is now coaching nationally ranked youth teams in the States, has been coming to this favela for the past 20 years, paying for the equipment through donations from his American players and families.

The kids in this room range in age from 8 to 14, but it is not uncommon to see 8-year-olds playing with older boys and even schooling them. Unlike in the U.S., Brazil's youth structure is not based on age-group level, but instead on talent. And if you have the skills, gender doesn't matter, either.

Wilson stands in front of them and delivers his soccer gospel: "If you play the right way, the Brazilian way, and work hard, all things are possible."

As rapt at they appeared listening to Wilson, the kids really had eyes for only one thing -- those bulging duffel bags on the floor and what they held. Knowing this, Wilson kept his remarks brief and then opened up the bags and poured out the treasures -- what to most people is a shoelace, to them is a strand of hope.

"These kids have nothing," Wilson told us. "The last time I was here, I handed a little boy a pair of soccer socks. He looked at me and said, 'What do I need these for when I don't have shoes?'"

Players at the Sao Marcos clubhouse sort through donations looking for a pair of new boots in which to impress.
Players at the Sao Marcos clubhouse sort through donations looking for a pair of new boots in which to impress.

The kids excitedly rummaged through the equipment. Then they headed downstairs to scrimmage on the patch of rutted, uneven dirt that is their soccer field. It abuts a larger dirt patch where the São Marcos favela team plays a league match against a team from another local favela. They go at it as if they were playing in Rio's Maracana. Up to 200,000 people cheer their team at the fabled stadium, but with no more urgency than the scores of locals who have packed the rooftops and windows and balcony to root for São Marcos. It's as if this was the only game in town and the World Cup was happening in a different country. Maybe that's because we didn't see a single TV screen in our hours at the favela, where the electricity is a jerry-rigged puzzle of tangled cords.

Several of São Marcos' best players will go on to professional clubs such as Flamengo, Palmeiras and even Vitoria FC, one of Salvador's two local First Division teams. But Wilson isn't looking at those players. He is watching the kids playing with their new equipment, finally able to display their skills with real shoes that fit and a new ball that is not scuffed and torn. Now they can show Wilson the "jogo bonito," the beautiful game that he has spent his lifetime instilling in every team and player he has coached. Two sides square off, a mixture of boys age 8 to 14 and one 15-year-old girl.

There is one more motivating factor that drives the kids across the dirt and brings an added intensity to the scrimmage -- the chance to leave here and come to New York on a full scholarship to play soccer. That is what happened to a girl named Lais, a tall, angular teenager who, four years ago in this favela, came up to Wilson and asked for a pair of shoes.

"She was 13," Wilson said. "I gave her some shoes, and then I watched as she schooled all the boys on the field. It took me only 10 minutes to realize that she had the kind of talent that could get her a soccer scholarship in the States. It was only a matter of getting her high school diploma and learning English, which took two years. And she starts college on a full scholarship this fall."

Lais is the role model in Sao Marcos; her soccer journey has taken her to a scholarship in the United States.
Lais is the role model in Sao Marcos; her soccer journey has taken her to a scholarship in the United States.

Every kid on the field -- and maybe everyone in the favela -- knows that story, as we quickly found out. It was not hard for them to clock the gringos standing on the sideline with Wilson. Besides us -- TMO and Woody -- was Wilson's assistant coach, Gui Stampur, Jeff "The Ticket Master" Spiritos and others who joined our crew: Evan, a GoPro-strapped, former college soccer player from New York; Ajene, a native Jamaican and a former teammate of Gui's at Columbia; and Kirsten, who was documenting Wilson's session with her camera. We were surrounded by kids asking how they could become the next Lais. For some reason, Ajene was able to answer their questions better than we were. It could be because he speaks Portuguese.

One kid caught everyone's eye. He was the smallest player on the field, probably no older than 9 and no bigger than Neymar at that age, but his yellow boots were a blur. He commanded the game from midfield, either dishing no-look passes to his teammates or executing a dazzling array of step-overs that left defenders dazed and confused. "Yellow Boots" had a swagger that belied his size and age. He announced himself afterward as Alex da Diego. We didn't have to understand Portuguese to get what he meant -- one day we'd be asking for his autograph.

If Alex simply kicked the ball hard off this favela hilltop, it might roll all the way down to the lush, green training grounds of Vitoria FC, a world -- and a 15-minute drive -- away. Because of Wilson's long friendship with a club executive Joao Paulo, Vitoria helps fund the favela project and brings some of their more talented players to its state-of-the-art complex that includes weight rooms, isometric machines, whirlpool baths and the kind of medical facilities, complete with a dentist on-call, that the favela kids in all likelihood have never been able to take advantage of. They are housed in modern dormitories with actual beds, three meals a day and running water. In the last 10 years, eight graduates of the Vitoria Youth Academy have gone on to play for the Brazilian national team, including David Luiz and Hulk, from the current World Cup side.

The players listen intently to Wilson's pre-game words of wisdom.
The players listen intently to Wilson's pre-game words of wisdom.

The facility is so well-groomed that the team from Portugal was scheduled to practice here within a couple of hours prior to their game with Germany, which is why FIFA Security personnel stood guard. This made it quite difficult for your trusty correspondents to hide in the palm trees and catch a glimpse of the great Cristiano Ronaldo screaming at his teammates for not passing him the ball every time down the field.

Reluctantly, we were eventually forced to leave. Stuck in traffic, we had no choice but to stop at a roadside bar for -- what else? -- caipirinhas. We had come to Brazil to dance and party and watch the world's best soccer players -- we did all that to the best of our ability -- but what we couldn't get out of our mind was a different picture, still of "jogo bonito" but played on a barren, baking square of dirt. And this, too, is Brazil.

We raised a glass to the São Marcos favela, where if you work hard and play right, all things are possible.