As one of the world’s most populous and majestic cities, Rio de Janeiro is home to over six million residents, and about a quarter of them live in favelas, low-income neighborhoods improvised from former shanty towns. The favelas are a reminder of the deep issues of inequality in Brazil; these are poor communities where Brazilian police officers and soldiers routinely get into deadly gunfights with criminal gangs, and they are located not far from glitzy shopping malls complete with helicopter landing pads for the convenience of the wealthiest shoppers.
Life is hard for young girls who live in the favelas. The local gangs that control the neighborhoods often recruit young women to work as drug couriers and dealers; sometimes they are forced into prostitution. To alleviate this situation, a few charities are making efforts to reach out to young favela girls with football. Favela Street is a program that gives former drug dealers an opportunity to redeem themselves by becoming youth football coaches. After four months of education and training, coaches are required to hold down a job or go to school full-time so that they can be good role models to young players. Some of the most enthusiastic football teams organized by Favela Street feature young girls who would normally have a hard time playing in a street football match.
For a country that is widely accepted to be the spiritual home of football, Brazil is also a country where women were not allowed to participate in the beautiful game from 1941 until the late 1970s; back then, a military dictatorship declared that football was not ladylike and thus prohibited. Thankfully, times are changing and now football fans can enjoy the skills of Marta Vieira da Silva, a Brazilian player who is considered to be the best in the world, even when compared to her male counterparts. Marta’s success has been mostly developed overseas because football programs for female players in Brazil are deficient.
Street Child United is a British charity that has negotiated safe spaces for girls to practice football. Space is limited in the favelas, which are precariously built on steep hills by families who cannot afford the expensive real estate in Rio. The astroturf football pitch built by Street Child United used to be a gathering spot for gangs; the charity even had to negotiate a truce with the police and leaders of local drug trafficking organizations to ensure that there are no shootouts on practice days. Neighbors love this truce because it allows them to have a guaranteed day of peace without having to worry about stray bullets and docking the crossfire.
For girls living in the favelas, football is an escape and a chance to dream about one day reaching the greatness achieved by Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima and Romario de Souza Faria, two legendary Brazilian players who emerged from these dangerous neighborhoods.