On the first day of my assignment, I innocently hopped into a taxi in the arty neighbourhood of Santa Teresa, in the centre of Rio de Janeiro, and handed over the address to the driver. He looked concerned. As we were getting close, after an hour’s drive through the never-ending and busy highways of the megalopolis, the driver would start asking his way. Every time, the answer would be the same: “It’s over there, but you shouldn’t go in, it’s too dangerous.”
Indeed, at the time, two factions were tirelessly fighting for the control of the drug and arm trafficking in the Guadalupe neighbourhood, a rough slum in the north zone of Rio. The location that we were heading to happened to be right in the center of it: “o campo do Jorginho” (“Jorginho’s pitch”), in the heart of Muquiço, one of the six favelas of Guadalupe.
Like many other favelas in Rio, Guadalupe is plagued by poverty, lack of public services, corruption, violence and a profound lack of opportunities. Many of the children living there fall into lives of crime with the promises of easy money from the ever-present drug dealers.
In 2000, former football champion Jorginho – who grew up in Muquiço and saw many of his childhood friends die – decided to take action and create an alternative. He founded Bola Pra Frente, an institute which creates new opportunities, through sports, education, art, culture and vocational training, for thousands of children and adolescents, otherwise in danger of falling prey to the many dangers of the favela.
Bola Pra Frente uses their fascination for football and the image of renowned athletes to attract them and transform their lives. Football is the bait that brings the children in, but education is what propels them onto a better future. Three times a week, either before or after school (in Brazil, overcrowding has forced the country to run public schools in of half-day shifts), the underprivileged youths go through the gates of the centre for a few hours of fun and education.
When Joyce, 14 years old, took me through the narrow and dark corridors of the building to the small apartment where she lives on the top floor with her mother, brother and stepfather, she opened the window and said: “Look! On a clear day, we can even see the statue of Christ the Redeemer from here.” Not only are the Guadalupe dwellers turning to Christ in the hope of a better life, they also come to grips with their lives, and Bola Pra Frente is there to help.