RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - While Brazil’s World Cup hopes rest on the young shoulders of players like Neymar and Oscar, soccer itself is offering hope to thousands of less fortunate youngsters who are unlikely to ever play for their country but who could one day have an influence on its future.
Behind Rio de Janeiro’s glitzy glamour spots like Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and Sugar Loaf mountain, lies a starker reality in poorer backwater districts like Curicica, where people make their living as best they can.
Paint peels from shops and electricity wires loop precariously from one old telegraph pole to another as dogs sleep in the street in the hot afternoon sun.
There appears to be no sense of resignation to fate though, certainly not among the youngsters at the Instituto Companheiros das Americas, FIFA’s Football for Hope project, where more than 2,500 students have passed through its doors since it opened in 2006.
Around 60 students are enrolled at a time and typically spend four hours a day at the project over a seven month period.
Classrooms and other educational facilities are good and although the one grass pitch is patchy and bumpy, it helps produce plenty of good results.
The idea of the project is not to unearth the next Pele, Ronaldo, or Neymar, although of course that would be a bonus, as project director Heloisa Andrade explained.
“The idea is very simple. It is to use the game of football as a tool for solving some of the social problems we have,” Andrade told Reuters.
”We use football as a way of teaching these youngsters about communications skills, about how to interact, to give them confidence.
“Our real goal is, by using football, to increase their chances of employability, of getting a job.”
The youngsters who come here, aged between 15 and 24, do not even have to have football skills.
“That is not the point really, but it is using football to develop themselves as people and to give them the potential for having better lives than they might have otherwise.”
FIFA’s Head of Corporate Social Responsibility Federico Addiechi plays a key role in an area of FIFA’s activities away from the better known functions that world soccer’s governing body performs such as organising World Cups and acting as the global guardians of the game.
As he spoke to Reuters, an unusual match was being played alongside him in the scorching sun.
The coach had paired youngsters of different abilities and they had to play continually holding hands with each other as a way of enforcing unity and trust.
They conceded a free-kick if they broke hands - and surprisingly few free-kicks were given.
“This is one example of what I am talking about,” he said, “using the game to boost young people who may have come here with very different ideas of trust or unity.”
The idea for major sports organisations to give something back to disadvantaged communities began as a United Nations initiative in 2005 when then Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on international sports federations to start projects as part of new social awareness programmes.
Addiechi says FIFA were the first to do so, and now allocated around 7.5 million euros a year to more than 250 programmes on all five continents.
And there is more to come.
”The real challenge for this particular project is to help the youth get a job. We are using football to get in touch with the kids, to ensure they attend on a daily basis.
”It has been very successful. In a normal situation, their chances of a job would be very low.
”With the project we are optimistic that two-thirds of them will get a job, or the opportunity for studying at college, or maybe even starting their own businesses after they have finished here.
”There are all kinds of ways it helps. Preparing yourself for a match is the same as preparing yourself for an interview. Solidarity on the pitch is important as is solidarity in a work place or business.
“Football for Hope is not actually pursuing any football goals - the goal is to make their lives better.”
With the World Cup being staged in Brazil in just over 18 months time, FIFA is concentrating some of its efforts in South America on opening more projects in Brazil.
Isabele Ingrid dos Santos thinks this is a good thing.
“We need it,” the 15-year-old told Reuters. “I will have better communications skills in my job. I will be able to express myself better and be more confident in dealing with people.”
Dandara Barbosa Pinto, 23, agreed: “If we can’t communicate well, how can we communicate with our friends, or at home or at work?”
Laura Nico is a senior programme officer at Partners of the Americas and oversees projects in Colombia, Haiti, Mexico and Brazil. She tells one story that illustrates the power of the programme.
”We stay in touch with a lot of these youngsters. One girl had very, very little chance in life, with all kinds of social and family problems. She came to see me recently and is just about to start college.
“She would never have had a chance of doing that without this. It makes it all worthwhile.”
Additional reporting by Douglas Engle; Editing by Peter Rutherford