World Cup fuels longshot dreams for Brazil’s poor

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) - The taste of soccer glory is still fresh for Andre Rodrigues de Principe, even as his moment of fame fades and he watches friends catch the eyes of scouts and coaches.

The bright-eyed 14-year-old shined in a video released last year ahead of the World Cup by FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. In it, the wire-thin boy shows off stellar dribbling skill in a sandlot game, before he stunningly loops the ball over a defender’s head to recreate an iconic goal by the great Pele in the 1958 World Cup.

Today, as Brazilians are captivated by the soccer tournament, the boy known as Andrezinho is without a club, and chances are dimming that soccer will help him find a way out of his humble hillside neighborhood.

Andrezinho is among the countless Brazilian boys whose distant dreams of fame and wealth fuel an obsession, one that carries up entire families as well as an industry of coaches and managers hungry to find the next big name.

Andrezinho’s star, however, may already have flamed out. Just about 5 feet tall, his growth has plateaued and, his mother says, he watches with envy as friends on his neighborhood squad - some almost two years younger - dart past him in height.

Although he’s trained with two of Brazil’s premier teams, Fluminense and Vasco da Gama, he now only plays on a team with other kids from his Vidigal favela, as slums here are known. Unlike in families where boys are pushed from birth to be loyal to their parents’ favorite team, Andrezinho would be happy to join any one.

“All I want to do is play soccer,” he says shyly.

The road to soccer glory in Brazil is long and cruel. The favelas are breeding grounds for some of the world’s top soccer talent. But for every player who makes it to a first division team, an estimated 6,000 are left behind, according to the Universidade do Futebol, a group that promotes the sport as a means to Brazil’s development.

Even the fortunate few who make it are unlikely to land million-dollar endorsement deals or a fashion model girlfriend. There are 32,000 men playing soccer at some professional level in Brazil, but 80 percent earn less than $540 a month, barely double Brazil’s minimum wage.

“Instead of a talent factory, soccer in Brazil is a factory of frustration,” said Eduardo Tega, a former amateur player who runs the Sao Paulo-based Universidade do Futebol.

Still, the dream calls.

Andrezinho’s mom, Ana Lucia Rodrigues, quit her job as a clothing store clerk and diverted attention away from the boy’s 9-year-old sister to accompany him to practice, traveling four hours by bus every day.

“I had no other life,” she concedes while preparing a carb-heavy lunch for her son and three teammates, one of whom recently traveled to Italy to attend a clinic run by the Inter Milan professional club. Still, she confesses, her goal this year is to find a manager to help get Andrezinho’s career back on track.

Players aren’t legally allowed to sign with a club until they’re 16. But armies of scouts, agents and career managers, as well as plenty of impostors, dodge the rules to prey on families’ hopes.

Payoffs are far greater than a pair of cleats or a stipend for food and bus fare. Money dominates the sport. The prospect of a seven-figure salary at a European club and a hefty transfer fee are salivated over all along the food chain, and children as young as 11 can command monthly payouts of up to $12,000, Tega said.

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