You hear about Brazilian soccer players from an early age—they are the inventors, the magicians. While Americans learn prescribed moves—the scissors, the stepover, the fake kick—Brazilians make them up, coming up with it as they go along. And while you know all this beforehand, nothing prepares you for seas of eight-year-olds who can do loop-de-loos over your head.
Arnaldo greets us at the airport and drives us to his father’s home Nova Iguaca, a ghetto suburb of Rio. It’s probably not where most tourists end up. The Brazilians look right in your face as they speak—like they are extremely considerate, wanting you to be aware that they are speaking to you, for you…even though you can’t understand anything they are saying. We nod and wait for Luke to translate. Arnaldo drives to the grassroots newspaper that tries to bring news to the million residents of Nova Iguacu. From there, a journalist and a musician take us to the small favela they both grew up in. We walk over an open sewer and into narrow corridors covered in bright graffiti. A mix of kids, teenagers and forty year olds play in the widest street—occasionally pausing for cars, old women carrying bags of groceries, and bicycles with soft horns. Construction cones serve as temporary goals—their real goals got run over by a drunken truck driver the previous week. The favela graffiti artist leans against one of his drawings—a woman with large red lips—sketching in his notebook as he watches the game. He gives Gwendolyn a drawing of a woman in very short soccer shorts. After the game, we duck into a neighborhood bar and drink Guaraná juice as a television plays highlights from the Brazil/Australia women’s game.
The following morning we play in Mesquita with old men. They are forty, fifty, sixty-year-olds who play on the dirt quadras every Saturday morning. After the game, we walk over to the outdoor bar and sit in plastic chairs, sipping on Antarctica beers as the men tell us about Brazil. We follow one player to his church kitchen where he chops meat for a barbeque. As he pulls massive shanks of beef out of a tub, he tells us about his life: his parents’ death, meeting his now-pregnant-wife when he was eleven, the hernia at age seventeen ruining his early professional career.
On Sunday evening we head back to Mesquita, where they block off certain streets for peladas (Brazil’s word for pick-up.) A sign hangs on a rope saying Rua de Lazer: street of leisure. Ryan has a posse of kids following him, regularly yelling into the microphone to watch him flinch. Another pack of kids is chanting Rebekah’s name: Hebekah, Hebekah, Hebekah. Gwendolyn is pulled through a doorway and fed chopped up hot dog (she thinks) and grape soda. Women—mothers, grandmothers—watch the games from patio chairs on sidewalks as they sip on beers and smoke cigarettes. They are the organizers of the closed-off streets; “We are old school,” they tell Luke in Portuguese.
By Monday night we have moved into the city of Rio. We go to the field beneath the apartment Luke lived in while he studied abroad. It’s raining and it’s been three years since he’s played here, but when we show up at 7, nothing has changed: it’s the same group of faces, the same tri-weekly pelada, the same slow walk out to the field. “Lukie!” they yell, smiling. “Onde que tá o cabelo?” one guy says, rubbing Lukes buzzed head. (If you google Boughen and Notre Dame you’ll see a roster pic that explains why opposing fans called him Brillo pad.)
We walk up to the group of guys sitting beneath the shelter and Luke taps his belly and says, “Cadê o gordão?” Everyone laughs and Gwendolyn waits for Luke to explain that this guy, who gives no signs of being anything but stereotypical Brazilian beautiful, used to be fat.
Monday was also the first day we ventured inside Rocinha: the government-shunned slum built onto a hillside and somewhere in the narrow range of 40,000 to 400,000 people. The only time you’ll see police there is during a raid. We have to get ok-ed by the drug lords first; they are the ones who run the favela, providing medicine, paving roads, and keeping the crime rate low. One professor emails us that he could not get us permission to enter. We finally meet two guys, Rogerio and Washington, who grew up there and agree to take us in. We plan to meet them at 3:00 at the bottom of the footbridge right outside the favela, and we get there early to ensure we don’t miss them. Our promptness backfires: they aren’t there yet, and we are now four tourists hanging out at the entrance to a slum. Ryan and Gwendolyn—with their darker features—try to create some distance between themselves and the blonde hair\fair skin of the other two. Ryan is comforted by each elderly person that passes by—the rationale goes, “if she has lived this long, surely we won’t get murdered in the span of a few minutes.” At 3:15 Rogerio shows up and escorts us in. Rebekah walks beside him, wearing her I-have-some-place-to-go face. Gwendolyn walks behind them, wearing her I’ve-been-more-afraid-before face. Ryan and Luke chat in the back as they take in the place that feels like a movie-set, with exposed wires hanging over our heads. There are men on both sides of the road with guns so big they look like toys. They send Rogerio an inquisitive look—he returns a thumbs-up and a nod, and we file into the narrow alleyways.