Brazil great Cafu helps slum kids chase their dreams
In a Sao Paulo shantytown, hundreds of children are chasing dreams of football glory thanks to a foundation set up by Cafu, a two-time world champion with Brazil's national squad.
It is midday Saturday in Jardim Irene, one of the city's poorest and most violent favelas, where Marcos Evangelista de Moraes -- better known as Cafu -- was born and grew up.
After a stellar career notably with Sao Paulo, Roma and Milan, Cafu, the only man to have played in three straight World Cup finals, set up the foundation as a way to give back to his community.
Every year, the academy welcomes around 750 children, aged between three and 17, using football as a vehicle to promote social integration and teach good citizenship.
From its two-story building, children are heard shouting and kicking balls as they learn the fundamentals of football, a national passion in a country which has won five world titles and prepares to host the 2014 World Cup.
Yet despite its sporting prowess, Brazilian census figures indicate up to a third of youngsters aged between seven and 14 live in poverty.
"Every week, I anxiously wait for Saturday to come here," says 11-year-old Gabriel Soares during a break.
From the stands, his parents keep him under close watch.
"He loves football. Every day, he plays in the classroom, in his room, in the corridor, wherever he can," says Edmar Soares as he shouts instructions to his son.
On the field, each team plays for five minutes, putting into practice what the instructors have taught them.
Nicolas da Silva, a frail, yet sharp-eyed 11-year-old, sprints sideways across the pitch without losing sight of the ball. He has been attending classes at the foundation every Saturday for the past three years.
"Here I also learn English because if I become a famous player I will need to speak other languages," he says.
Alan Santana, a 12-year-old goalkeeper, has high hopes of becoming a star. "I would like to play in Italy," he says.
-- Foundation's mission is to foster social integration ---
Classes are free and include football, English, computer science, music, dance and Capoeira, the Brazilian martial art.
The foundation also offers scholarships to those who, after finishing high school with good grades, want to continue their studies.
Inaugurated in 2004 with an annual budget of $330,000, it plans to expand, including by offering more study scholarships.
Foundation director Silvia Abranches says private companies contribute $120,000 to the budget, while Cafu provides the rest.
"The goal of the Foundation is 100 percent social integration, to help the children integrate society in a more egalitarian manner, give them a chance to use their capacity and intelligence," Cafu told AFP.
The children worship him as an idol in the same league as "King" Pele and Argentine legend Lionel Messi.
For Talis Rosa Melo, a 22-year-old instructor, the foundation's mission is to teach the fundamentals of football as well as good citizenship.
"We want to pull them off the street, offer them a refuge where they can, at least for a while, escape their harsh reality," he adds.
Some of those who graduated from the academy later joined training centres of major local clubs such as Corinthians.
On the pitch, Gabriel seizes the ball in midfield, races toward the opposing team's goal, shoots and scores.
"What a beautiful goal," crows his proud father.
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