Wednesday, 13 April 2016

World Cup Stories: Football in the Favela

I'd been planning a midweek visit to Hazlerigg Victory but a waterlogged pitch put paid to the game.  So instead, and with my trip to the 2014 World Cup almost two years distant, here's a piece from a pre-tournament stay at the Ladeira dos Trabajas favela organised by Paul Finnerty, probably the only man in a Rochdale top in the whole of Rio de Janeiro.

Down on Copacabana Beach the football tourists were out in force.  Colombians swapped chants with Chileans, Argentina fans lined up photos by their flags, and lads in Scotland and France shirts took on a combined USA and Brazil team by the entrance to FIFA's fenced off Fan Fest, workers scooping sand and laying scaffolding for a space which would be packed to its 20,000 capacity for the tournament's opening game.

There were plenty of supporters up in the Ladeira dos Trabajas favela too, where an eight-team competition had been organised ahead of the main event. "It's not about the World Cup, it's about bringing people together," Alex, whose idea it had been, told me as we toured the Lajao (Big Roof) pitch, built on a bit of flat ground the drug gangs had laid aside for community use. "When it rains, it's impossible to play here," he explained, anxiously scanning a skyline which stretched all the way down to Copacabana. "We built it in the 1990s and now three teams are based here." Wire cages enclosed the top and sides; down below an armed police officer patrolled in front of mounds of earth and plastic bottles. "We have tournaments for teenagers and adults," Alex went on. "It's four-a-side and you're allowed between four and ten players in each squad.  We have five pitches and each team chose one as their home ground. We play home and away legs and the teams raised the money from local businesses to buy a trophy for the end.  The people who play put in money for improvements to the pitches. If you want something done here, you do it yourself."

I met up with Leandro and Paul for the big evening fixture. Leandro had started a volunteer project in 2007 to teach English, Spanish and art and had more recently set up a book exchange at various points around the streets. "We want to bring the community together," he explained. "It's important to do things. You know, one of the players who started out on these pitches eventually made the Brazilian beach football team." Paul, originally from Rochdale, had first arrived to help out with the language classes. "Everything's constantly being built and rebuilt," he told me. "Nothing stays the same."

We wound up crumbling staircases to the stadium past exposed pipes and breezeblocks, bags of cement and open doorways through which cooking smells wafted on the breeze. There were indoor dance classes and the sound of the evening news on dozens of flatscreen TVs. On the final step a hand painted sign announced the home of Jaca Verde FC, named, I was told, after a fruit which grows in the neighbouring hills of Sejam Bem Vindos. The crowd was gathered around the cage fence and on a rock face adorned with the national flag and dates of the country's five World Cup wins for a game which pitted the hosts against Colombia. Yellow and green streamers hung from the roof netting in the colours of both teams while a giant green and white flag had been territorially draped behind a goal. Colombia netted first, sparking a mini-pitch invasion and recriminations among the Jaca back four, the orange-and-white shirted official flashing yellow cards for dissent and encroachment at the free kick which had started the move. "The refs come from one of the other six teams," Paul told me. "They get a bit of stick during the game but nothing too bad."

Jaca scored two quick goals, the second drawing mocking cries of "Frangueiro" ("Chicken") from the kids leaning over the perimeter fence.   By full time the home team had stretched the lead to 6-2.  "Where's your screaming now?" their keeper asked the travelling fans.  Behind, lights twinkled over the sands of Copacabana, Jaca players danced and rolled towards the sidelines and Colombia, deflated, looked off in the opposite direction, puffing on cigarettes. 

Leandro and Alex at the Lajao
Brazil v Croatia at the FIFA Fan Fest

I wrote more contemporary World Cup missives from Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre, where I watched France beat Honduras 3-0, while there's an overview of the entire trip on In Bed With Maradona, which includes stops in Argentina, Uruguay and the day I had a conversation in broken English with a man who coached Diego himself. 

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