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.
“It’s become a big business,” said Marcelo Teixeira, a former scout for England’s Manchester United who is the top soccer executive at Fluminense. “But reaching the top is as hard as winning the lottery.”
Rio-based Fluminense runs 80 soccer schools around the country where each year more than 6,000 players show off their skills, all of them hoping to be one of the 30 chosen for Fluminense’s amateur teams.
For the soccer dreamers in Vidigal, the World Cup is driving their ambition for fame, especially when legends like France’s Thierry Henry show up, as he did recently to kick around a ball with them for a promotional event.
The well-cared-for synthetic pitch they play on lies over a dirt field ordered built in the 1990s by a soccer-loving drug lord who once dominated the favela. Though the community of some 13,000 people is much safer following a 2011 police occupation, many still remember when gangsters used the bleachers as a dumping spot for the bodies of dead rivals. Today, it’s where Andrezinho and his teammates gather to learn about the different countries playing in the World Cup.
His coach, Paulo Cezar Bento, said he wants to protect the 150-plus kids he works with in Vidigal from repeating the mistake he made while trying to make it as a pro — focusing too much on soccer and not on education.
For more than a decade, he’s been running a soccer program for kids as young as 4, now funded by Rio’s city government, which seeks to instill life lessons that will serve the boys, whether or not they chase their soccer dreams.
“My goal isn’t to produce craques,” Bento said, using the Brazilian word for a soccer phenom. “I always tell them it’s easier to study chemistry in a federal university than it is to be a player. All you need to do is read books.”