Tiny Sao Cristovao Football Club gave Ronaldo “the Phenomenon” his start and a quarter century later manager Antonio Carlos Dias hasn’t given up dreaming that he might discover Brazil’s next superstar.
Viewed from the club’s weatherbeaten grandstand in a gritty part of Rio de Janeiro, Dias’ ambition might sound far-fetched.
Yes, Ronaldo became one of the world’s best footballers. But he last played for Sao Cristovao as a teenager back in the early 1990s, and the club has been on the skids ever since.
Huge letters behind one of the goals read: “The Phenomenon was born here.”
The reality is a bumpy pitch, a clubhouse badly in need of paint and a team stuck in Rio state’s third division.
Still, this is Brazil. This is the country of Pele, Zico, Socrates, Kaka and all the talent assembling for this summer’s World Cup in Russia – Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and company.
This is a country where even lowly Sao Cristovao can dream.
“We have a lot of stars in Brazil,” Dias said, as he watched the club’s class of 12-14 year old academy boys play on ragged grass. “The potential supply is bottomless.”
‘BORN WITH IT’
Like their footballing heroes, nearly all the kids learning at Sao Cristovao are from favelas, the tight-knit, poor and often violent Rio neighbourhoods where sport is a rare escape.
“Some are lost due to the environment around them – to drug trafficking, to easy money,” Dias said. Many arrive at training not having eaten properly.
The club takes them under its wing. Then “we start fishing for the one who might make it,” Dias said.
Ronaldo himself was born poor in Rio, going on to score 62 international goals, win two World Cups, and stun opponents at PSV, Barcelona and Inter Milan.
The boys running about on Sao Cristovao’s field today still love him.
“I want to be like Neymar or Ronaldo, to make the national team of Brazil,” said Mauricio Almeida, 15, wearing a Sao Cristovao academy shirt with the slogan “Factory of the Phenomenon.”
Youth coach Renato Campos, 56, remembers Ronaldo standing out as a gap-toothed teen, but says there’s nothing easy about picking a future champion. “You wouldn’t have said he’d be the best player in the world.”
Then the coach’s eye roved over the pitch, as if somewhere on that patchy grass a new “Fenomeno” might blossom. He fixed upon an undersized but skilful boy who consistently beat bigger defenders.
The boy will be “practically hopeless” on the international market, Campos said in a matter of fact way, but “will do well here in Brazil.”
“You see the difference in the quality of how they strike the ball, the quality of their passes, their determination,” Campos said.
“Some you have to work with them on this. Others are born with it.”
FOOTBALL IS EVERYTHING
Brazil’s ability to produce footballing genius may look effortless. The truth is that the sport, like so many things in Latin America’s biggest country, is held back by poor financing and corruption.
Sao Cristovao, one of Rio’s best clubs back in the early 20th century, is a perfect example.
The trophy room is an Aladdin’s Cave of gleaming silver and gold cups, but they mostly celebrate the footballing equivalent of ancient history.
Ronaldo’s fading connection to the club is even more poignant: on the club notice board – which has no recent notices – appears a fading photograph of the last time the star visited. It’s dated January 2014.
Dias says years of financial mismanagement rather than lack of talent ruined Sao Cristoval. Those same “dark” practices also scared Ronaldo off coming back to lend his boyhood club a hand.
But Dias, 49, believes he can restore the club “to its past glory” and demonstrate to investors – and hopefully Ronaldo – that the club is now “free of corruption.”
A former professional footballer in Brazil and Portugal, Dias took over Sao Cristovao just three months ago. He has poured in his own money, changed key staff, bought new kit, and is targeting promotion to the second division, with an eye on the first division in 2020.
“Sometimes my family tells me that I sound crazy,” he laughed, but “I love this club and I love football.”
Or, as 14-year-old trainee Jorge Gabriel replied when asked what battered, but brave Sao Cristovao meant to him: “Everything.”
Brazilian football stars have traditionally emerged from scrappy community playing fields in favelas, but for Luis Phelipe Souza, 17, the road to the future starts at a state-of-the-art academy.
With Brazil the world’s biggest exporter of professional footballers, incentives are ever bigger for youngsters to try and make the cut.
And the Red Bull Brasil training center in Jarinu, near Sao Paulo, gives a lucky few a head start.
Souza trains full time, going to his home in a favela only on weekends. He’s one of 120 youngsters, from 14 to 20, desperate to make the big stage.
“My idol is Neymar because of all he had to endure to get to where he is: the criticisms, the insults,” said Souza. “He succeeded, overcame the obstacles and is one of the best in the world.”
The Red Bull centre was built a decade ago by the energy drinks giant to give its professional team, which plays at Sao Paulo state level, a top class talent pool on which to build.
More than one in 10 transfers involve Brazilians and last year clubs in 93 of FIFA’s 211 member associations had at least one Brazilian, according to a study from FIFA-TMS, which monitors the transfer market.
Red Bull, an Austrian company that uses sponsorship of high level sports to mold its image, sees Brazil as a good bet. The country has a population of 206 million, a deep footballing culture and appreciation for skillful players.
“Brazilians make the difference thanks to their creativity and exuberance. The kids here play more freely, less robotically,” said Red Bull Brasil’s executive director Thiago Scuro while watching an under-17 game.
Springboard to foreign clubs
Red Bull Brasil employs six scouts around the country to pull in new talent – boys like Thomas Bueno, a promising striker who adores Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and is just 14.
“Red Bull Brasil opens the doors to us in other clubs in Germany, Austria. It’s like a springboard for getting abroad,” said Bueno, who arrived at the club last year.
Souza has already had a taste of the life and he likes it.
He says he cried with emotion when he took a plane for the first time to attend an international championship in Austria.
“I’ve got an opportunity to change my family’s life. I come from a poor neighborhood and God knows how much I’ve suffered since I was eight,” he said.
An apprentice’s salary that he receives is sent to his sick mother, he says.
This is a business, though, and the competition is relentless. At the end of each season, only the best are allowed to stay – many are sent home.
Vitor Hugo Araujo is 20 and knows now how hard it is to break through to the top professional level.
He’s been trying to get into training programs at Brazilian clubs since he was 13 and arrived at Red Bull Brasil three years ago. He also spent six months in Austria.
“I lost a bit of my childhood to football, but if I had to redo it, I wouldn’t change anything,” he said.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi continue to set the bar in world bar but with the duo supposedly entering the final years of their careers, the discussion over who will replace them at the top has rumbled on.
However, the Al-Sadd SC midfielder has taken it upon himself to nominate two players to take over from the two superstars who have 10 Ballons d’Or between them.
The 38-year-old believes Neymar will be one of the players to rise to the very top having played with him at the Nou Camp for two seasons before leaving for Qatar.
“I have a huge respect for him [Neymar],” Xavi told French media outlet RMC Sport. “He’s a fantastic footballer, when Messi and Cristiano lower their level, he will win the next Golden Ball.”
He went on to suggest that the Brazilian’s PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe will join him at the pinnacle of world football once Ronaldo and Messi’s powers wane.
“When Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo retire, the debate about the best in the world will be between Neymar and Mbappe.”