From the Favelas to the Soccer Stadium

By Tania Menai

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Like many teenager girls, they love lipstick and navigate the teenage years with a daily dose of drama. They are all “cariocas”, born and raised in the tropical and sexy city of Rio de Janeiro. However, these are not girls from Ipanema or any Bossa Nova lyrics. Instead, they come from Complexo da Penha, a group of eleven “favelas” or slums, in the northern part of town. Unknown to tourists and rarely visited by locals, the area is home to nearly fifty thousand people and makes the news for less-than-glamorous reasons:  alcohol, domestic violence, drug dealers and guns shots. Many gun shots. However, thanks to an international program started by the Dutch, called Favela Street, these girls are able to slightly detach themselves from this reality to become fit, tough and talented soccer players.

“This project serves as a second family to me. It helped me get out of a life of wrongdoing when I was 21 years-old and even took me to Cambridge to study English – I am really thankful for its leaders,” says Jessica Medeiros, now 24, who is the current coach to this team. It all started with Philip Veldhuis when he left his native Holland to pursue an internship in international development right in Complexo da Penha. His time there culminated in a mission: to use his soccer skills to show unprivileged kids a new path, introducing role models other than drug lords. In 2012, he spent four months working in six different communities coaching ex- gang members, all boys.

The following year, a British organization called Street Child United approached Veldhuis with an interesting task: to create a girls’ soccer team to join their Street Child United World Cup. Nineteen countries would be involved, and the games would take place right in Rio de Janeiro, just a few months before the official World Cup.

Veldhuis started working with a sole girl and saw the number of players increase until it reached 80. Dealing with issues like fights and the confusion of adolescence, Philip became a father figure and would even pick the girls up at home with a “Kombi” van to drive them to their training sessions. “It started with five, then ten, then twenty, then there wasn’t enough place for everyone in the van,” he recalls. “We kept focusing on the best ones,” he recounts. “But I kept telling them that I wanted the ones who were not only the best in soccer, but also the best as team players, and best in contributing to other girls’ feelings and safety.” He explains, “Even though these girls were not living in the streets, they are no strangers to this reality – plus, I wanted to make female soccer more accepted in their communities.” Veldhuis points out that Brazil doesn’t hold a place for women in this sport as much as the United State does.

favela-girls-soccer (3)-minHe went to all 80 girls’ homes to talk to their parents and even brothers, to allow everyone to be included. Plus, he paired up with one of the best international street soccer players to curate the team. “On the opening day, the girls were impressed when they saw 18 international teams, 250 volunteers and 250 children, from Burundi to the Philippines. That’s when it hit them,” smiles Veldhuis. “We happened to be the first match, so there were over 100 cameramen and media crews – and you have to remember: they rarely leave the favela, their lives are basically there.” They scored 14 x 0 against Indonesia, and for the following 10 days their lives were a dream: they were taken to see Chris the Redeemer, Rio’s primary attraction, and also to the local British School, to discuss the rights of street children. “My role was always to leave the negativity and gossip away. They actually won the Street Child United World Cup, and got to keep the cup in Brazil – this event sent them an extremely positive message, and encouraged them set the bar high for themselves; a goal that was previously imaginable. They’ve grown tremendously and became role models for other girls,” celebrates Veldhuis.

Veldhuis went back to Holland last December, so he picked two girls to coach the team, which is supervised by Joe Hewitt, the local head of Street Child United. Finding places for these players to practice has not always been easy. “We’ve been investing in safe places for them to play, so we created a field sponsored by GM Chevrolet, and came to an agreement for the drug dealers and police to stay away from it – it is not always the case. A few weeks ago, there was a shooting 20 yards away,” says Hewitt. “They have to manage to train in situations of extreme violence between the police and drug dealers – sometimes games have to be suspended. I’ve been here for 3 years. So far, 2015 has been the most violent,” says Hewitt.

Over the months, Hewitt and the coaches have empowered the girls, increasing each players’ sense of independence. “Soccer has become an escape where they can express themselves. They have never had solid family around to teach them basic life skills. Philip really became a father to these girls and now I try to extend his legacy,” Hewitt adds. Most of the players go to school, and the team trains four times a week. Street Child United has been checking up on them and opening new doors for the most talented: one of them participated in an exchange program in Los Angeles, and Jessica went to Cambridge to study English and to take part in a discussion on the life of the street children in London. Says Hewitt, “Some of them are extremely bright and capable, so we are involving them in workshops to expand their horizons.” He is proud to add, “Not to mention that they are tough to the level of the UK and USA players.”

Perhaps the most powerful message that Hewitt and his coaches impart has nothing to do with soccer. “Many of these girls have brothers who are still into trafficking – they are traumatized for different reasons and they don’t know it,” he says. “But we tell them that, to achieve something in life, it doesn’t matter where they come from as long as they have goals.”

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