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TSN sent a production team to the favelas of Brazil to document the impact of soccer on a brave group of young women. This is their story.

TSN sent a production team to the favelas of Brazil to document the impact of soccer on a brave group of young women. This is their story.

Chapter 1Running

Rio de Janeiro - When you’re smuggling marijuana and cocaine and pistols through the dangerous streets of Rio de Janeiro, it’s best not to call attention to yourself.

This was the guidance given to Jéssica Medeiros.

Jéssica lives in Complexo de Penha, one of the city’s infamous favelas, a jumble of narrow alleyways and ramshackle hillside homes.

At 18, Jéssica was hired as a runner, paid to carry drugs and guns and intelligence throughout Rio and neighbouring cities. She was taught to sit quietly when riding city buses, avoid eye contact with police, and never carry more than a backpack full of illegal goods.

“I had left home, I didn’t have any way to find a job or get money,” she says. “So I got asked to transport drugs, and I ended up going. I’d travel around with a backpack. Just one backpack. I’d go by bus. When I’d get here, I had to distribute it to the favelas.”

For four years, Jéssica dodged police and rival gangs as a drug trafficker, beating the odds in the process.

Once young teens get into the drugs business in Rio, their life expectancy plummets.

Most drug runners and gang ‘soldiers’ are dead before they turn 21.

Jéssica is now 24. If you ask her how she was able to escape the fate of so many other children of the favelas, she’ll tell you her good fortune is thanks to soccer.

Several years ago Jéssica helped start a local soccer program in Penha.

This was no small decision. In Brazil, soccer has long been viewed as a sport exclusively for men.

Women who wanted to deke and dart their way down a field were ridiculed as lesbians, derisively called “Sapatos,” or big shoes.

But in Penha, the pull of soccer, the joy of scoring a goal, humbling an opponent with a lovely feint, was enough to convince more than a dozen young women to join a local team.

“God is helping us,” Jéssica said. “If we have the willpower, we’ll be able to grow and keep moving forward… soccer helped me because even with me leaving (the drug trade), I sometimes feel hopeless.”

She’ll tell you her good fortune is thanks to soccer

Chapter 2Danger

Hopelessness is all-too-common in favelas like Penha, and it’s easy to understand why. This is among the world’s most dangerous neighbourhoods in one of the world’s most dangerous cities in one of the world’s most dangerous countries.


Murders were committed in
Rio de Janeiro in 2012

More people are murdered in Brazil than
in nearly any other country.

Per 100 000 Inhabitants
In Rio
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

When violent crimes are committed, the police response is often underwhelming. The homicide rate has shaved seven years off the life expectancy in the Rio favelas, where 1.4 million of the city’s 6.3 million residents live.

Of Homicides Are Solved in
Of Homicides Are Solved in

There are other dangers, too. There were 1,972 reported rapes in Rio in 2012, up 24 per cent from the previous year. A police spokesperson said more recent data was not available.

In 2008, with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics looming, the Rio government began the "pacification," an effort to wrestle back control of its 800-odd favelas mostly from the three drug gangs, or “traficantes”, that operate there.

The Red Command, the Third Command, and Friends of Friends establish their own rule of law with an army of foot soldiers.

There are reportedly 40,000 gang members, many of whom sell access to pirated cable TV, phones, and transportation, not to mention AK-47 or M-15 machine guns, 9-millimetre revolvers, even rocket launchers.

Penha is the kind of place where holding up a cellphone camera at the wrong time in the wrong place—such as one of the many street corners where drug lords hide their cache of drugs and money in plain sight of locals—can get you killed.

During one operation in 2010 in Penha, police seized 44 grenades, 215 pistols, 19 submachine guns, and ten bombs. (Perhaps it could have been worse. During a raid in another favela, police found bazookas and 39 Browning antiaircraft guns.)

As dusk settled over one favela on a recent autumn evening, business was booming on the street corners.

Vendors grilled chicken, pork and beef, fanning the charcoal with newspapers until it glowed red hot. A group of young men wearing red, yellow and black striped tank tops waited to give motorcycle taxi rides to locals returning home. They charged three reals ($1) for a trip to any address within the hilly favela.

Sgt. Leonardo Filgueira de Lima walks past the bustle of activity, carrying a .45 pistol and a badge bearing both his name and blood type: A+

Filgueira de Lima says the traffickers routinely recruit young teens to be their runners.

“Our laws here in Brazil are so weak with these kind of people,” Filgueira de Lima said.

“The teenagers are dancing with the devil…”

“If the other drug gangs don’t kill them, we will.”

Chapter 3A Way Out

Silva, as he’s known in this warren of streets in Penha, is a former hitman who claims 14 kills to his credit.

Criminals, even Silva, who spent nearly a year in jail for drug trafficking but was never arrested for his other crimes, are typically sent to prison after their convictions. The number of Brazilians jailed for drug trafficking climbed to 138,000 in 2012, up from 33,000 in 2005.

It’s just that prisoners here don’t tend to remain behind bars for very long. The state doesn’t have room for them.

Over the past two decades, Brazil’s population has grown by 30 per cent. But the number of Brazilians jailed has grown four-fold to 550,000. That’s the fourth-highest prison population in the world, after the U.S., China and Russia.

Silva grew up in a family of 13 children. Six of those were drug dealers. The other seven were drug users.

“I grew up in a family that has suffered a lot,” Silva said, toying with a large gold necklace and loose-fitting watch. “What drew me into dealing was the money, the nice brand clothes people wore.”

Like Jéssica, Silva did well enough as a drug trafficker that he was noticed by his bosses. With attention came more responsibility.

“I started getting orders to kill some people.”

Silva, too, recruited youngsters as traffickers.

“When the police catch one adult and one minor, generally the minor assumes all the guilt to let the adult go free,” he said. “Two weeks later, one month maximum, the minor is back on the street. It just keeps going.”

Over the years, Silva said he killed 14 before he finally got out of the gang life. And when he did, Silva became an unlikely soccer evangelist.

At least a few of his former colleagues wouldn’t like that, Silva said.


It’s overcast and threatening rain as Jéssica prowls the rooftop patio of her friend Silva.

As the rain begins to pelt the tin roof over Silva's home, Jéssica calls over a visitor to look at a video on her Samsung cellphone. She says it’s a clip from a birthday party. Instead, she shows a footage from a graphic murder committed recently in Penha. As a young man sits at a roadside café, someone walks up to him, holds up a pistol, and empties the gun’s 12-shot magazine into his head and chest.

Jéssica smirks as she watches the video, which has spread through Penha. Her expression suggests she’s neither horrified nor disgusted. When a guest suggests the video isn’t appropriate for anyone, let alone the young players on her team, Jéssica shrugs.

Life here is cheap and hard.


Jéssica has been out of the gang life for two years.

She’d been trafficking for a drug baron named Felipe – sometimes taping bricks of cash to her body under her clothes – when Felipe told her it was time to graduate to the next level of gang life. He wanted her to kill a rival gang member.

But Jéssica had had enough. She wanted out.

It wasn't only the thought of death that bothered her. It was the chance that she would be captured and put in prison.


Jéssica first reconciled with her mother. Then, her grandmother got on the phone and brokered a deal with Felipe.

He agreed that if Jéssica did three more smuggling jobs, he’d allow her to leave the gang.

Jéssica fulfilled her side of the bargain, and Felipe honoured his. But Jéssica felt empty.

She wandered the streets, wondering what she’d do next.

Many former drug traffickers return to crime because they miss the cash and the camaraderie.

Chapter 4A New Hope

Then soccer entered her life.

When she talks about soccer, Jéssica brightens, grinning to show the braces on her teeth. (Like plastic surgery, orthodontics here are actually affordable for most Brazilians).

Her eyes widen, and she stops running her hands through her tightly curled hair, dyed a bright blonde. She stops scratching at the tattoo on her right arm that reads “May my courage be bigger than my fear and may my strength be as big as my faith.”

Jéssica says she heard that a Street Child World Cup soccer tournament featuring boys and girls teams was to be played in the weeks leading up to the men’s World Cup in Rio in 2014.

The first such event had been staged four years earlier in South Africa, sponsored by charities including Save The Children. It was in response to a government move there to “clean up” the streets of Durban for the 2010 men’s World Cup by forcing hundreds of homeless residents, teens and children included, to move from the city centre.

Jéssica learned that the tournament would feature youth from 19 countries including Brazil, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and South Africa. The only requirement for entry – that young players aged 13-19 either live or work in the streets or be exposed to the dangers of the streets.


Jéssica was too old to play in the tournament, but she was determined to take part in some way. So she offered to be a coach. She knew without soccer she could easily slip back into crime.

“When you end up fighting with your family and don’t have anywhere to go, no one to be with, then you start thinking, Jeez, how I miss those (smuggling) trips,” said Jéssica.

“That’s where soccer comes in. It ends up distracting you.”

Chapter 5Pulling Power

Thaiane Christina Lope de Oliveira has muscular legs powerful enough to send a soccer ball streaking over the head of a goalkeeper from 30 yards away.

She can deke her way through a forest of defenders as deftly as any of the teenaged boys in Penha. Want her to head the ball back and forth with teammate, keeping the ball aloft in the air, for a few photos? No problem.

“For five minutes, or 10?” she asks, nonplussed.

Thaiane, now 18, was exactly the sort of female player Penha needed – a young woman who snaps “piss off” in response to catcalls and under-the-breath suggestions that if she plays soccer she must be a lesbian.

“Even when we play soccer, they say that this is something for men,” she said. “They call us dykes and say a ton of things.”

“and to that I say, soccer is for men and women.”


But for Thaiane and the younger players who followed her to a ramshackle concrete basketball court in the centre of Penha that doubled as a soccer pitch, there was an obvious problem: how do you build a team when there are near daily shootings in the street and coaches are too afraid to come?

“With this violence, coaches are afraid of coming to train us.”


The onetime drug trafficker offered to rekindle her old relationships with local drug lords and build new ones with the likes of hit men like Silva, who have more influence in the favela than law enforcement.

Chapter 6A Change of Course

Thaiane was three when her father, a drug addict, died in hospital. Her mother raised Thaiane and her brother as a single mother, working at a local supermarket.

Thaiane thrived with a soccer ball, and became a team leader.

“Thaiane is a character who we’ve seen develop,” Hewitt said. “She really is a great player, but comes from a very tough past.”

The tournament opened on March 30, 2014, only a few days after the captain of Brazil’s boys entry in the Street Child World Cup tournament was gunned down in Rio, another vivid reminder of the dangers of this city.

Thaiane almost was forced to walk away from her team before even playing a single game.


She discovered she was pregnant a month or so before the tournament, and only received permission to suit up for Brazil after a doctor said she’d be okay to play.

Chapter 7Champions

Brazil opened with a 14-0 win over Indonesia, and in its second game, shut out Zimbabwe 4-0. After playoff wins against Nicaragua and El Salvador, Brazil advanced to the finals to play the Philippines.

The teams were evenly matched and the game remained scoreless until late in the second half when the ball came to Oliveira.

Chapter 8Looking Forward

So what now will become of Penha’s young female players?

After the Street Child World Cup, Thaiane received an offer to play with Vasco de Gama, but had to turn the team down because she needs to be with her toddler daughter.

Hewitt said his organization is now working to help a few girls orchestrate a possible escape from the favela. Four of the players on the Penha team have been enrolled in English lessons, he said.

That’s the first step in a plan to get a few players here university or college scholarships in Canada, the U.S. or the U.K.


“One of the key issues Brazil faces is adolescent mortality,” Street Child’s Hewitt said.

“There are 30,000 children being murdered in Brazil every year. That’s warzone statistics. And if you look at the favelas, that’s where it’s the highest. This isn’t just a story about soccer. It’s about the future of Brazil. This country has an incredible future ahead of it...

...but the question is how many people will go on in that future.”

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