Getting children off the streets and on the Brazil pitch

It is an international football tournament and it is in Brazil, but this is one World Cup where negativity is nowhere to be found, writes Gary Meenaghan in Rio de Janiero.

The 10-day event in Brazil will have 24 teams from 19 countries, including the Philippines, Egypt, Pakistan and the United States. Courtesy Street Child World Cup
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It is two months before the Fifa World Cup kicks off in Brazil, yet on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, far from the famous Copacabana or the iconic Maracana, an alternative festival of football is taking place.

Surely only here, deep inside this lush green valley that is surrounded by vertiginous peaks, would you see a team of Indonesian girls trailing 8-0 to the host country after only 10 minutes yet spending much of their half time respite dancing and singing and grinning like the scores were reversed?

Surely only here, among 230 former street children between the ages of 14 and 17, would you hear the story of a young Tanzanian boy, who gashed his leg during a match, refusing to go to hospital because, firstly, his wounds always healed naturally when he lived on the streets, and secondly, he might miss his team’s next game?

Surely only here, on a sprawling complex usually reserved for Vasco Da Gama’s soccer school, would you find Gilberto Silva, the tough-tackling former Arsenal midfielder, weep openly while listening to an elfin Indian boy relaying a personal account of abject poverty and family tragedy?

Welcome to the 2014 Street Child World Cup: a 10-day tournament aimed at raising awareness of the 100 million street children around the world.

“I have quite a big connection with the kids because seeing them play reminds me of when I played on the streets,” Gilberto said. “I didn’t have a start to life like theirs, I was fortunate not to be in their position, which is the hardest in the world. All the kids have won a big trophy just by being here.”

This is the second edition of the tournament. The inaugural event was held in Durban in 2010, inspired by a conversation three years earlier between co-founder John Wroe and a group of South African street children.

“One of the youngsters said ‘When they see me on the streets, they say I am a street child; when they see me playing football, they say I am a person’,” Wroe said. “We talked a lot about that and then another child said, ‘the World Cup is happening in South Africa, why can’t we have a World Cup for street children’?”

So they did – and the consequences were long lasting.

The Durban city government was, according to organisers, compelled to end the practice of “street sweeps” and this week’s objective is to instigate the Brazilian government to introduce its first public policy on street children.

Several of the children who took part in the 2010 event are in Brazil this week, able to provide proof of how lives can be altered with the right support.

“It’s fantastic to have kids with us here who were involved at the first event,” said Wroe. “It’s lovely seeing how their life has changed: One is a freestyle footballer, one is a motorcycle driver, one is at college.”

This year’s event – billed by fellow co-founder Chris Rose as “the World Cup that matters” – has tripled in size and features 24 teams from 19 countries, including the Philippines, Egypt, the United States and Pakistan.

As well as the football, the teams are involved in social development projects, such as yesterday’s visit to Vidigal, a pacified favela, and the Global Street Child Conference. Earlier trips took them to Christ the Redeemer and the Maracana.

At Sunday’s opening ceremony, organised by a group of 225 volunteers and featuring statements of support from Prince William and Pope Francis, each team marched on to the pitch waving their national flag and dressed in either team kit or national dress.

One Indian boy appeared dressed as Mahatma Gandhi and carried a placard reading “No child should have to live on the streets”.

India is home to more than 11 million street children – the largest population in the world – and Unicef estimates only 40 per cent of newborns are registered at birth. That equates to millions of children each year being born into a void; millions of children with no proof of existence.

The Team India captain, Kanadoss, moved to Chennai as a youth and slept in a railway station before being taken to a shelter run by the Karunalaya Social Service Society. “I cannot imagine what would have been my life on the streets if Karunalaya had not rescued me,” he said.

The situation is similar across the globe. For almost all of the children involved in the Street Child World Cup, the preparations to be able to fly to Brazil meant applying for birth certificates and passports, national IDs and visas.

Then came the anxious wait to see if the required documentation would arrive in time. Team Mozambique received the all-clear to fly only a day before they were due at the airport.

“When the teams first stepped off the plane and put their feet on Brazilian soil, I was overwhelmed,” said Wroe. “I don’t think it will sink in for a few weeks quite what we have achieved – just in getting them here.”

Joe Hewitt, the tournament director in Brazil, tells the story of last Friday, when seven teams were due at Rio’s Galeao International Airport in quick succession. South Africa arrived first and the team sang Shoshaloza each time another group came through the gates.

“By the end, the whole airport had come to a standstill,” Hewitt said. “It was beautiful to experience; I’ve never heard of Rio being ‘out-carnivaled’, but that’s what happened.”

Although the focus is on football this week, the level of skill is largely irrelevant. The players are selected not on talent but on their ability to showcase the benefits of staying off the streets.

It costs an estimated £1,000 (Dh6,000) to send a youth to the Street Child World Cup, with each team being funded by non-governmental organisations, corporate partners, foundations and charity.

If any team falls short of the required funds, the tournament organisers try to assist them.

“We choose the best street child projects in the world and they have to convince us they can provide support before, during and after the event, as well as using the global platform to campaign for change in their country,” Wroe said. “There are so many negative stories about the Fifa World Cup, so it’s really great to be able to help provide a good-news story.”

The final of the Street Child World Cup is held on Sunday at Laranjeiras, home of Fluminense, the Brazilian top-flight team. It will be followed by a written declaration by the children, which will be used to lobby world governments.

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