other 'boys of brazil'

Brazilians are the gods of football. The national team, five-time winners of the World Cup, dazzle the planet, all lazy yellow-shirted immobility, followed by a sudden panther-like turn of speed, with spellbinding interaction.

Brazilians are the gods of football. The national team, five-time winners of the World Cup, dazzle the planet, all lazy yellow-shirted immobility, followed by a sudden panther-like turn of speed, with spellbinding interaction.

After ones own nation, they are every football fan's favourite team.

But look behind that glory, there is despair and misery in the violence-wracked slums and shantytowns of soccer-loving Brazil.

Cocaine trafficking is often the main industry of the shantytowns. Often children are exposed and hooked on drugs at the age of 10. Some look like wrinkled old men when still in their teens.

The streets commonly see gunfights between the gangs and civilian groups comprised of retired cops or firemen. Heavily armed gangs will happily attack police stations. In December 2006, 19 people were killed in Brazil's urban strife, including the passengers of a torched bus. Bloodshed is constant, it's almost civil war.

This seems like an uncontrollable bunch of problems. But some brave souls refuse to accept defeat. Eprocad, Sports Education for Children and Teenagers, part of the now widespread "street football" movement that is supported by Fifa's Football for Hope, is one of these agencies striving to help save the street kids.

Eprocad is based in Santana de Parneiba. A small hillside town, its air of sluggishness and soggy decay is emphasised by frequent heavy tropical showers. The Eprocad foundation is in the town's outskirts, at the end of a long desolate road. The enthusiasm of five or six boys and girls playing football, despite rough ground and the muddy puddles that trap the ball is the main touching point of Eprocad's commitment and vision.

Working with local schools, the foundation aims to increase sports, culture and above all social skills of Santana's youth. Children come in at a very young age, continue until they become instructors and for many of them, Eprocad becomes a substitute family.

Daniel, 29, has been here for the past 10 years. He knew very little when he first joined the group. Now we find him on a small enclosed gravel pitch, overseeing boys and girls who are playing football blindfolded.

We wonder if this is the brilliant secret training technique for producing stars like Pele and Daniel explains: "It's a kind of therapy. When I put blindfolds on the players, I want them to hear and feel, not just to see. They should realise that even a blind person can work and play."

Turning to the kids, he tells them to stop playing, and they obey, pulling off their sweaty blindfolds. He explains his actions.

"Some of them were cheating, peeking from under their blindfolds to see where the ball is. That's disrespectful to those following the rules. And learning rules about successful interaction, is what makes this work. In other words, respect, cooperation and fairness is more important than winning."

In Eprocad, football is the beginning not the end. The idea behind Eprocad is to complete and educate the child. The agency declares that 5 000 school children in the neighbourhood are touched by its influence.

Ironically the original concept of Eprocad was more single-minded and very limited.

In 1983 when Jose Massias da Silva, a local businessman, started a project called Epropar, the idea was to find underprivileged children who had the build and athleticism to become possible future stars in Olympic sports, including volleyball, basketball, athletics and soccer. The concept evolved in 1994 with the founding of Eprocad.

Senor da Silva, a member of the board of directors at Eprocad explains why it seemed necessary to widen the net away from budding Wayne Rooneys and Magic Johnsons.

"There were so many children we wanted to help, children who are at risk and who had committed small crimes, not just the potential number nines for Inter Milan or Arsenal."

He pauses, and adds with a sigh, "This institution is not enough. It is impossible to look after everyone in the city."

We talk about his hopes for Eprocad's future.

"My main desire is that it grows. That it becomes like a drop of water for the children of Brazil. That it changes the present status of children in Brazil. That is my fight and my work."

Yet, of course it would be nice to discover a star footballer. And the Eprocad staff members think they may have found the star in Thiago, one of the players and instructors.

Maria Camargo, an educational coordinator, tells us that this brilliant young man has a special place in her heart, her glowing smile confirms it.

"I have known him since he was very small and very misbehaved. He has grown not only physically but emotionally and learnt many skills."

Thiago has become a fine representative of Eprocad, interested in everything, above all football. At a young age, he was given special dispensation to take part in the South American Youth Championships and Maria says he did very well.

We asked Thiago, a very shy and polite teenager about his dreams for the future. He looked uncertain, glancing around him like a five-year-old seeking support.

Finally he says: "Everyone knows I want to be a well-known football player. I will fight for it, and there is still time."

This place has made all the difference to him. Half his young life was spent here. He is learning how to deal with people and to respect others.

When asked about his favourite soccer star, his expression turns dreamy.

"Robinho - every time I see him playing or being interviewed on TV, I imagine myself, not taking his place, but playing side by side with him," he says.