I get the ball at left back. The central midfielder shows for it. He’s demanding the ball. Best give it to him. He’s not long out of prison for manslaughter. A ‘football argument’ that got out of hand, apparently. He turns out, nutmegs his opponent, and then switches the play to Capone at right back – a UEFA Super Cup winner who’s getting on a bit. His 20-a-day smoking habit doesn’t help him either. Over the buzz of the crowd the screams of Tharik, our kit man, ring out. He’s not one to hold back during a game. His passion often gets the better of him. He deals drugs on the side. Next to him is our team co-ordinator, Elias. He’ll be dead in a few months. Stabbed fifteen times in the back by his boyfriend. Welcome to Brazilian football, Sefi.
I was 18 years old when I moved out to Brazil to play for Sorriso Esporte Clube. I’d like to say that the move was purely down to my ability, but in reality it was a huge chunk of good fortune. By this point English football had chewed me up and spat me out. Ultimately rejected by the cut-throat academy system I’d ended up in non-league with Stamford AFC. It wasn’t too bad. I was captaining the youth team and sitting on the bench for the first team, even picking up a bit of money for my troubles. It was in my final season playing for the youth team when it happened. A Brazilian agent moved to Stamford and began to watch our youth team games. Soon he was befriending the coaching staff and before long he’d arranged for us to go on an end-of-season tour to Brazil.
I was too old to be eligible to play in the tournament we were involved in: the Copa II de Julho. Still, the agent had arranged for me and the four other over-aged others to train with the local U19 team in the area – top-level Vitoria EC. I didn’t do too badly in training, and when their left back was called up to the Brazil U20 squad I was invited to play in a game for Vitoria. It was in this game that I was spotted by Sorriso EC and invited to return to Brazil to play for their youth team in the Copa Sao Paulo. Overwhelmed I jumped at the opportunity.
It turns out that being a professional footballer is nothing like what you grow up to believe. At least not in Brazil, anyway. I set off on the 36 hour journey to Sorriso expecting luxury. I arrived to find a three-bedroomed converted garage on the edge of a favela. I would be living here, it turned out, with 29 of my team mates. The windows were barred. The whole place filthy. And now it was home.
We trained 13 times a week. Sunday afternoons were our only point of rest. Occasionally we got a morning off training. Each session was two-and-a-half hours long. Everything was done with the ball. Nutmegs were valued more than anything. Football was an art form. We had to refer to our coaches as ‘professors’.
The distance between wealth and poverty was astounding. Even within our team there was a huge gap. One player lived in a gated mansion with a swimming pool in the south. Another brought all of his belongings to our new home in a backpack: a vest, a pair of shorts, flip-flops, a toothbrush and a pair of football boots. He was the happiest person I’ve ever met.
We spent three months training relentlessly for the Copa Sao Paulo. It wasn’t worth it in the end. After two games we had been eliminated. Maybe we’d have fared better if our players hadn’t placed such value on the good life. Every night at least three players would jump through the barred windows and head out into the town. They just loved partying. They’d come back through the window at 5am and then wake up again at 7.30 for training. In reality, however, we just weren’t good enough.
On a personal level the tournament had been a real anti-climax. So much preparation, dedication, sacrifice, and I didn’t even make it on to the pitch. The media followed my every move. All because of my Englishness. The English – the inventors of the game. That’s how they are known, and an Englishman coming over to play in Brazilian football? It was the ultimate compliment. In the end it was what saved me too. The Chairman of the club wasn’t really bothered about my ability. He was more fussed about the media coverage which would then lead to exposure and potential sponsorship. I got him media coverage and because of that I was saved.
I was promoted to the professional team, despite the prospect of game time appearing thin. We had a squad of 36. There were 11 places on the pitch and no reserve team. Our captain was a UEFA Super Cup winner. We had players who had represented Brazil at youth level. The left back played in the same team as Kaka at Sao Paulo. I was making up the numbers but I was fine with that. For now I could finally call myself a professional footballer.
Ten minutes. That’s all I ended up playing for the professional side. It was in a cup game against an amateur side and we were already 5-0 up so there was no risk in giving me a run out. It never got any better than that. The media coverage began to die away and the coach pushed his youth team graduates to one side.
In the end I had to go back home to England. I loved Brazil – the people over there are truly special – but it was a necessity. It turned out to be for the best. There was corruption everywhere – especially in the football club. Things weren’t right. Sorriso was the last place before the rainforest. It was isolated and hard to police. Money was going missing. There was open racism. There were allegations that the players who were so poor they had nothing to lose were being exploited sexually for money. And then there was the murder of Elias. To some it was a lovers tiff, to others it was a paid killing. I guess we’ll never know. Elias was a homosexual local governor and there were people high up who were uncomfortable with his growing level of power.
I’ll always cherish what happened to me in Brazil. It taught me so much about the beautiful game and life in general. Recently I wrote my experiences up into a book. The Boy in Brazil came out in April and was shortlisted for Football Book of the Year at the British Sports Book Awards. It is available in digital and paperback format from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones.
Written by Seth Burkett
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