‘To play well you’ve got to eat properly.’ This was Francisca do Nascimento’s reaction on the phone in Marabá when she heard her son M, then aged 15, say that there wasn’t enough food in the ‘hostel’ set up by the ‘scout’ Ronildo Borges de Souza. He was amongst 12 youngsters who came from the far-away northern Amazon state of Pará to Santos in the south of Brazil on the promise of getting to play in the under-15 and under-17 championships in the strip of Portuguesa Santista, a century-old team from the São Paulo coast currently in the second division of the São Paulo league.
The twelve boys from poor Pará families were recruited by Ronildo, also from Pará, who obtained authorisation from the parents empowering him to negotiate any sort of contract for the boys, but without giving him legal guardianship. His qualification for that was a “trainer” diploma from the Union of Professional Football Trainers of the State of São Paulo obtained after a 36-hour theory course.
For children in a football-crazed nation like Brazil, the dream of becoming another player such as Ronaldo, or else Ganso or Pará – football stars who were both from poor families in Pará state – arise the enthusiasm of both children and parents. In this case, it led parents to trust the neighbour who used to visit the football academies looking for lads with talent.
Hamilton de Abreu, father of D, says that Ronildo was well-known for taking kids to play in the Brazilian South-East: ‘He was a good talker, mentioned other players who’d ended up with major team such as Cruzeiro or Atlético, so we trusted him.’ ‘Our boy really wanted to go, and he was also influenced by his mates, by the promise of arriving there and starting to play straight away. Since there are no opportunities here, we decided to let him.’ The father thought this was a chance for his son to make his dream come true.
The boys were entered for the boys championship of the São Paulo Football Federation by Portuguesa Santista as Ronildo had promised, but gradually the telephone calls began to worry their parents. ‘There came a time when he started to ring here and say: “Dad, we’re not in a very good state here, there’s not enough food,’ Hamilton remembers. Like other parents, he claims he sent Ronildo R$350 (US$175) a month to cover his son’s costs.
On 2 May 2011, after an anonymous tip-off, the Wardship Council of the Eastern Area of Santos visited number 90 Bassin Nagib Trabulsi Street, where the 12 boys were living in an improvised flat, a ‘sort of mini-bedsitter’, 40 sq metres in area, at the top of the building. According to the report, the situation was ‘very precarious, furniture in terrible condition, and all the bedrooms had been left dirty and in an unhygienic state. We saw that there was no food and when we asked Mr Ronildo about this, he said he’d get some.’
The following day the local Public Prosecutor applied for an injunction against the Portuguesa Santista team and Ronildo Borges de Souza requiring them to stop using the adolescents in official matches or training sessions until they were under the guardianship of a responsible person, with their papers in Santos regularised, and enrolled in a school – all rights guaranteed by the so-called Pelé Law, which regulates football in Brazil. It also demanded the immediate transfer of the boys to hotels and for the costs to be paid for all those who wished to return home, arguing that ‘it is impossible to accept that the young people should remain in such precarious conditions, without even receiving food’.
The injunction was granted by the judge for child and youth issues, Evandro Renato Pereira, after the case ran under secrecy of justice. According to the process, to which Publica had exclusive access, he issued summonses against Ronildo and the club. Two boys preferred to return home to their parents and the other ten were transferred to the Pensão Capelinha.
On 13 February this year, the judge accepted most of the Public Ministry’s case, imposing a fine of R$50,000 (US$25,000) per player under training in precarious accommodation and ordered the defendants ‘not to enrol or in any way be party to the enrollment of players not resident in the region in the São Paulo State Football Federation unless they enrolled in schools, adequately housed and receive medical, dental and psychological attention, and a guarantee that they can return to their parents’.
The conviction of Portuguesa Santista
The judge also rejected Portuguesa’s defence. The club had argued that it had no case to answer because it ‘had outsourced the management of amateur football activities to Mr. Fernando Cezar de Mattos, who as a result had complete responsibility for the development of this department.’ ‘If he transferred this task to a third party (Ronildo), Fernando remained responsible for supervising the activities carried out by Ronildo,’ the club insisted, concluding that it had ‘no connection at all with the facts discovered’.
‘If they came to Santos and are enrolled in Portuguesa Santista, it is the club in the first place that has to ensure that they enjoy all the rights to which they are entitled under the Pelé Law and the Statute on Children and Adolescents, without prejudice to any further action against individuals,’ ruled the judge. He continued: ‘All those who in any way took advantage of this illegal transport of adolescents to Santos with a view to securing some future sporting or commercial advantage are jointly responsible for compensating the adolescents for all their damages… The club, whether acting alone or through third parties, should not encourage adolescents to cross the country unless they have the best possible developmental conditions here.’
And, referring to Ronildo, who submitted in his defence the authorisations given by the parents, certificates of the enrolment of the adolescents in schools (though no marks or records of attendance) and supermarket bills, the judge commented: ‘It is unacceptable for individuals connected to the club or business people with commercial interests to be the young people’s guardians. The role of the guardian is relational and disinterested, not commercial.’
On the phone, lawyer Cláudio Luiz Ursini, Ronildo’s legal representative, told Pública, ‘It’s true there was no food, but that’s because if you let them, the boys would just eat rubbish.’ Ursini insisted that the boys had a better life than with their parents: ‘What seems to have been considered a bad situation for the boys was much better than the state they lived in in their own city,’ he said, justifying his argument by the poverty of their families.
Portuguesa Santista refused to comment.
Going through the sieve
In the past weeks, a Brazilian federal labour court have decided that teenager football players older than 14 years old should be contracted under specific conditions of “apprenticeship” under a minimum wage salary and adequate accommodations. Inadequade conduct has been investigated in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais – where the teams of Cruzeiro, América and Vila Nova had to sign a term of adjustment of conduct and the team Atlético Mineiro was fined for exploiting child labour under inadequate conditions.
In Brazil, the desire to be part of the elite group of players who gain a new social status through football is the main factor in the vulnerability of parents and children to traps such as the one that caught the boys in Portuguesa Santista.
This is the view of ex-star player Raí Souza Vieira de Oliveira, one of the creators of the Gol da Letra foundation, which organises cultural and educational activities for children and young people from low-income families. ‘The majority of players in famous clubs come from different states. Many are persuaded to take the risk by opportunists, who have no organisation behind them,’ he says.
Even those who succeed in making their dreams come true often have their broader education harmed by going professional too soon, encouraged by families and clubs. ‘The only result they’re interested in is a professional footballer. But this leaves out the other side, character development, guidance and education,’ says Raí.
While still adolescents, the players compete for places at the lowest level in the professional clubs, and try to make their mark in the state championships. Santos FC, for example, holds trials – known as ‘sieves’ – every week in some city in Brazil at which as many as 500 boys between 10 and 17 will be assessed. In 2011 30,000 boys went through the club’s trials.
In addition, many boys come through agents or business people who have contacts with members of the big clubs’ teams and offer the boys for trials or to play in youth championships. In some cases this role is outsourced more than once, as in the case of Ronildo, who was hired by Fernando Cezar Matos, who ran Portuguesa Santista’s amateur department on an out-sourced basis.
‘It’s common for the boys to arrive at the clubs at 12 years of age and stay till they’re 20 to become professional players. But they end up not being taken on as professionals, and what do they do with their lives? They haven’t been educated, they have no qualifications, they have nothing at all,’ says another ex-player, Neto, a famous commentator for a Brazilian TV Station.
Even the examples of success sometimes mean huge sacrifices for the boys and their families, as in the case of ‘Pará’. Before becoming the famous winger of Santos FC and then going to Grêmio, he had, as he says, ‘to sell my lunch to pay for my supper’.
‘My parents had to sell nearly everything to support me,’ says ‘Pará’. ‘One day the trainer told me that he wanted to take three or four boys to São Paulo to play professionally, and asked me if I wanted to go.’ Despite the opposition of his parents, he accepted the trainer’s support and endured the three days’ bus journey to São Paulo, where he went through all sorts of hardships before becoming a successful winger.
The 2014 World Cup, a new mirage
The dream of becoming a professional footballer becomes even more exciting with the approach of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, both of which will take place in Brazil in the next four years. ‘Big sporting events create the illusion that being a footballer is an accessible path to a successful career,’ says Renato Mendes, coordinator of the International Labour Organisation’s International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour.
Mendes believes that this illusion can expose adolescents to risks greater than the ill-treatment suffered by the boys from Pará in Santos, mainly because they are removed from family life. The absence of a protective network when dealing with other adults encourages abuse, including sexual exploitation. ‘This frequently occurs in this type of power relation,’ says Mendes. ‘The adolescent gets lost in the relationship that combines authority and affection because he knows he depends on this person to fulfil his dream.’
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) wants a review of the organisation and selection systems at lower levels in all Brazilian football clubs. Mendes says: ‘We want to avoid the situation in which the child becomes an object by linking talent training centres to schools, more specifically to the ministry of education.’
The ILO’s decision to intervene in football’s world of child labour was strengthened by death of an adolescent during a ‘sieve’ trial in Brazilian Rio de Janeiro State, in February this year. Wendel Júnior Venâncio da Silva, 14, was taken ill and collapsed on the pitch at football team Vasco’s Training Centre. He was taken to an emergency medical centre nearby, but died. The boy was from São João Nepomuceno, in the state of Minas Gerais, and had been in Rio de Janeiro for a period of trials at Vasco. People connected with the club’s lower levels say that he had brought a medical certificate that showed him as able to engage in physical activities.
But a medical certificate does not rule out responsibility on the club’s part. Immediately after the incident, the Rio de Janeiro Public Prosecutor sought an injunction against the extremely bad conditions adolescents are made to endure at Vasco. In April the Training Centre for the clubs lower levels had its activities suspended by a Judge, and is being obliged to improve the facilities at its premises within a period of 30 days. The judge imposed a fine of R$30,000 (US$15,000) in the event of non-compliance.
In March the São Paulo Public Ministry appealed against the original judgment against Portuguesa Santista. According to the office, in addition to infringing the State of Children and Young People, and the Pelé Law, the case should have been classified as people trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation, an aspect that the judge’s ruling did not address.
According to the office, the trafficking was evidenced in the way in which the boys were recruited in Pará, through ‘a seductive tale designed to get the victims, from many points of view vulnerable, to leave their homes and seek their fortune in a distant place’. Internal people trafficking in Brazil carries a penalty of between three and eight years’ imprisonment, in addition to a fine for the enticer – in this case Ronildo.
In the appeal the prosecutor also stressed the need to ‘pull away the curtain of invisibility that shrouds the practice of trafficking human beings’. ‘Many players who come from other states seek their fortune in Portuguesa Santista because they think that one day they will get a chance in bigger teams like Santos,’ argued prosecutor Carlos Alberto Carmelo Junior.
This playing on the dreams of children makes it difficult for parents to prevent their sons taking the chance. Francisca, for example, tried to bring her son back as soon as she heard that he wasn’t eating properly, but was faced by the resistance of the boy, dazzled with the chance to play in São Paulo. ‘He dreams of being a famous player, earning lots of money, having a good life, but my dream for him is to get an education and qualifications,’ she said in a hasty telephone conversation.
But the pleasure of playing in São Paulo makes some of these boys forget the difficulties they went through in Santos. ‘I spent two months in São Paulo playing friendlies and then I went to live in Santos, where I played in the Portuguesa under-15’s. It was worth it,’ says F, who returned to Pará in July 2011. ‘When I got back home, we were happy and sad at the same time. I’m trying to go back to Santos as soon as possible,’ he admits.