Beautiful game is ticket out of Rio poverty
On a muddy pitch in a Rio slum, a skinny 17-year-old with big dreams of football stardom struts his stuff to attract the attention of talent-spotters watching a local tournament.
Alan Viera is one of 800 teenagers taking part in the Favelas Cup, a tournament that draws players from 80 local shantytowns.
In this soccer-mad nation of 194 million people, which will host the 2014 World Cup, "the beautiful game" is a ticket out of poverty for millions of poor youths.
Viera lives in Mata Machado, a small favela nestled in the Boa Vista district near the Corcovado Mountain and its iconic Christ the Redeemer statue.
Waiting to be bussed to the stadium, he and his team-mates trade jokes and horse around to relieve the tension ahead of the big game. Victory would ensure a semi-final spot.
"I think that for all of us, the goal is to become a professional player, to wear the national squad's jersey," said Viera, who like all local youths, wears earrings.
His life is a constant struggle.
"At times we eat only rice and beans. I have to work really hard to become a football player and help my family," he added.
Every Brazilian kid dreams of being the next Zico, Ronaldo or Neymar and the Favelas Cup is a good stepping stone.
Talent spotters from major Rio teams watch every game to assess the players and select the best prospects.
"Look: Botafogo, Vasco, Flamengo, Fluminense (soccer clubs). They are all here, waiting to see you play. That is what you have been waiting for, make the most of it," coach Alexander Assuncao told his players before they stepped on the field on Sunday.
Now 36, Assuncao was among those who got that chance but squandered it.
At the age of 15, he was invited to play for Stuttgart in Germany. But lacking discipline and missing his family, he chose to return to Brazil and to his Mata Machado neighborhood.
During the first half of the match, Viera and his teammates played poorly, but after a telling off from their coach, they rallied and won 3-0, with Viera grabbing the final goal.
The match was closely watched by the talent spotters.
"We are monitoring a couple of players who had a strong performance to give them a chance to try out with professional teams," said Amilton de Oliveira, of the Deponto agency.
Viera and 14-year-old Iuri Menegatti are being coveted by Madureira, a modest professional team.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Anderson Basilio has already gone though that hurdle. He leaves home early and takes three buses to reach the training center of Flamengo, one of the country's best teams.
For the past eight months, he has been playing with the amateur team, hoping to land a professional contract.
"When I arrived at Flamengo, I did not look back. I trained, got to know the professionals and asked myself whether I was dreaming. But it was for real. It is my dream and I am going to make it," he said as he proudly looked at the team's red and black jersey.
Basilio played in the previous edition of the Favelas Cup and his team, Vila Carioca, finished third.
He was voted best defender of the tournament. His 48-year-old father, who once played with Flamengo as amateur goalkeeper, is confident that his son's future as a pro is assured.
In the neighborhood, Basilio is a celebrity. He stops to chat with friends and to kick a ball in the street.
Asked by AFP whether Basilio would be given a professional deal, Flamengo were non-committal.
Meanwhile Viera and his team were eliminated in the semi-final but left the pitch with their heads held high.
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