Football brings hope, but not much more in favelas of Rio

Mikey Stafford tours a north Rio favela with a Corkman trying to make a difference.

MIkey Stafford reports for from Rio de Janeiro

FAMILY AND FRIENDS have high hopes for seven-year-old Riann and in Barreira do Vasco that is a rare thing.

photo 4 Source: Adelle Hughes

In this north Rio favela where 15,000 people exist in cramped, haphazard almost medieval poverty hope is in short supply. Here, where single-parent families of eight or nine children live in one and two-bed shacks made of wafer-thin bricks, seven year olds are not supposed to have high hopes.

They are expected to survive, even if there is very little involvement from the outside world to meet this lowest of expectations.

Football could offer Riann a ticket out of Vasco, via Vasco da Gama. Already on the books of the historic Rio club, both his father and his uncle believe he is good enough to one day play for the Seleção.

These are not just the ill-informed opinions of proud but desperate men. Both Riann’s father, Valkmar, and his uncle, Carlão, are former professional footballers. The bloodlines are good, Valkmar won a Copa Libertadores with Vasco, while Carlão was a goalkeeper with Portuguesa.

Carlao knows his nephew is the most gifted player in the favela because, through Carlão’s Football Project, he casts an eye over most of them.

photo 2 (2) Source: Adelle Hughes

At any one time he has 120 children between the ages of 4 and 16 coming to him across the course of three sessions held four days a week. More than football coaching, Carlão provides a father figure, a peacemaker and something stable in the very unstable lives of these children.

On a practical level his Project also tries to provide food, clothing and footwear but funding is scarce. Carlão’s monthly salary is paid by the government but his facilities amount to one concrete pitch at the entrance to the favela and he relies on the support of volunteers.

“I need space for them to play, for the project to grow. What it needs is more leaders, more local leaders, from the favela. We need a programme to help the community to help itself, but it won’t happen,” Carlão told

“If I had the money I’d build new houses for the poorest kids before anything,” he said, betraying a truth that cuts to the heart of the issue.

Football may provide his nephew a living and it may give more than 100 children in this neighbourhood a reason to get up in the morning but when your house is in danger of collapsing every time it rains the game pales into insignificance.

While Brazil has spent somewhere in the region of €15 billion on the World Cup there are children in Vasco and going hungry every night. One 10 year old in the project spent three years living alone on the streets before being taken in by a good Samaritan.

One of Carlão’s volunteers, Millstreet native Conor Hartnett, works with another project in Complexo do Alamao and he brings us up on the R$210million (€70m) cable car to help us grasp the sheer scale of Rio’s poverty problem.

A confluence of six separate favelas, the size of Alamao is mind-boggling. Estimates put its population at somewhere between 200,000 and over a million, but the discrepancy speaks volumes for how people live in this monstrous slum.

unnamed Source: Adelle Hughes

From our gondola the structures below look like asymmetric dollhouses and they stretch as far as the eye can see, every hillside crawling with inadequate forms of shelter. For R$5 (it’s R$1 for residents) we ride the Teleferico for 16 minutes until we reach the summit.

As Conor predicted, two boys of no more than 10 are waiting for us with cold bottles of water at the station exit. I buy one for R$2.

Selling water from eight in the morning until eight at night, this pair of barefoot entrepreneurs have almost no hope of escaping their life of poverty. After a good day selling water they will blow their meagre profits on sweets but their horizons are limited.

Conor points out the Olympic Stadium, which will host the 2016 Rio Games just miles from one of the poorest places in the western hemisphere, and explains how our two companions believe that shiny white arena is the Maracana. Why try and tell them that there is yet another venue they will never visit, miles away, where the World Cup final will be played?

photo 3 (2) Source: Adelle Hughes

Conor brought Carlão to the redeveloped Maracana for the group match between Argentina and Bosnia. While the Asian tourists beside them tried to figure out what colour Argentina were playing in, Carlão grew emotional looking around the new stadium and a crowd in which he appeared to be the only black man.

This wasn’t Carlão’s first visit to the famous stadium, he played in goal there eight times for Portuguesa.

He may have felt out of place in his former place of work but in Barreira do Vasco Carlão is a king. Ahead of Brazil’s semi-final defeat to Germany he invites us into his little green house, where we meet his daughters, and he collects some football gear recently donated by some Scottish supporters.

We are going to pay a visit to two of the poorest boys involved in the programme and as we wind through a warren of narrow and uneven alleys barely a person passes without saying hello to Carlão.


Packs of children hound him, asking when they will be seeing him next and Carlão knows exactly what day and what time without referring to a spreadsheet or iPhone app.

As I squeeze through one particularly narrow alleyway I look behind me to see whether I could find my way back should I be separated. There is a teenager effortlessly cycling through after me, the handlebars practically scraping off the tunnel walls.

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You adapt but in the favelas it is survival of the fittest. Fifteen-year-old Nelson is not the fittest but Conor assures me he is a wonderful footballer. I struggle to conjure images of this tiny, waif-like child performing bicycle kicks from the halfway line of the concrete pitch.

photo 4 (2) Source: Adelle Hughes

Nelson and his mother live in the poorest section of Vasco, in a shack of a house built on the sight of a former graveyard. The houses are tiny, flimsy and piled on top of each other but are “like Manhattan” compared to the dwellings in Complexo do Alamao where Conor’s second project, IASESPE, is based.

Back when drug dealers ruled the favela, seven years ago or less, countless victims ended up in shallow graves near Nelson’s house and while things in Vasco are now much safer, drug trafficking is still one of the primary employers.

Carlão is realistic about what his project, now eight years old, can achieve.

“None of these boys will be professionals, or else they would be with Vasco,” he tells

“What I am aiming to do is teach respect, give them an education, teach them to talk through their conflicts. Maybe then they won’t end up drug addicts like their fathers.”

But their dreams have a ceiling.

“In a community of 15,000 people only 700 have ever gone to university. It is nearly impossible. They will work in supermarkets or factories, they’ll ride motorcycle taxis. About 20% will become drug dealers.”

photo 5 (1) Source: Adelle Hughes

Later, after watching Germany humiliate Brazil, we were sitting in a bar when Carlão pointed out a young man in a Brazil jersey. He and his girlfriend made a handsome couple as they chatted away with a couple of bar flies.

“He’s a former pupil of mine,” said Carlão proudly. “He has a job, he has a girlfriend and he’s happy with his life.”

Not everyone can have high hopes like Riann, but everyone should have some hope.

To learn more about both projects and donate visit here.

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Mikey Stafford

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