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In a Brazilian favela, rugby opens the horizon of young people

Ⓒ AFP – Apu Gomes – | Rodrigo Luiz Amorim and Lucas Aquino Chagas during a rugby rugby tournament in Icarai beach, in the Niteroi district, Rio de Janeiro on September 2, 2017

A group of Brazilian teenagers run after a ball on a dusty football field of a favela. The scene seems banal, except for one detail: the ball is oval.

In the country of Pelé, football is king. But in Morro do Castro, a favela perched on a hill of Niteroi in the near suburb of Rio de Janeiro, it is the rugby that has the odds.

Certainly, the lawn is far from being as green as that of Twickenham, the legendary London stadium.

And the players do not really have jerseys, rather a mix of colorful t-shirts of different colors – some are even barefoot.

No rugby poles either. When the ball goes out of the field, it sometimes falls into an open sewer.

Ⓒ AFP – Apu Gomes – | Brazilian teenagers during a rugby class in the Morro do Castro favela in Rio de Janeiro on 1 September 2017

And in the event of a shoot-out between police officers and drug traffickers – or even rival gangs of narco-traffickers – teens know how to protect themselves: sheltering under a concrete wall behind the goals.

But when it comes to playing, these youngsters show a passion worthy of the most traditional lands of the oval.

The passes are twisted with care. Well-oiled play sequences.

Their version of the haka, traditional Maori dance of the All Blacks of New Zealand, is revisited with some samba sounds …

But the rage to defeat is intact.

– ‘Front door’ –

At the end of the training session, Lucas Aquino Chagas, a 17-year-old proudly proudly wearing dreadlocks, smiled to the ears. His dream ? “Playing for the All Blacks,” he answers without hesitation.

Brazil, a nation of more than 208 million, has only 16,000 licensed rugby players. A grain of sand compared to millions of footballers.

Ⓒ AFP – Apu Gomes – | Brazilian teenagers during a rugby class in the slum Morro do Castro in Rio de Janeiro on 1 September 2017

Most young people dream of imitating Neymar and winning astronomical sums by playing in big European clubs.

But in Morro do Castro, the budding rugbymen learn to leave the beaten track. They are guided by Robert Malengreau, a 28-year-old Anglo-Brazilian who graduated from Oxford, who played at amateur divisions in England.

Faced with the harsh reality of the favelas, often made of violence, poverty and social exclusion, he founded the NGO UmRio four years ago.

He formed a partnership with a school in Morro do Castro, a favela he considers “abandoned” by the government, to open up new horizons for young people, instilling sports values.

Ⓒ AFP – Apu Gomes – | Brazilian teenagers during a rugby class in the slum Morro do Castro in Rio de Janeiro on 1 September 2017

Through his contacts at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, he has succeeded in attracting players from many countries to help him practice some training. The two famous British universities also offered rugby shirts.

The impact is strong among the youth of the favela. “It’s as if Oxford or Cambridge said + the doors are open to you,” says Robert Malengreau.

In fact, her NGO goes beyond the oval balloon.

In addition to rugby, Robert brought dentists and doctors to the favela for free consultations – in Morro do Castro, there is only one dentist for every 6,000 inhabitants.

Volunteers also teach English and the goal is for young people to progress both in the field and at school.

Approximately 400 children and adolescents have already benefited from the services of the association.

Ⓒ AFP – Apu Gomes – | Brazilian teenagers during a rugby tournament in Icarai beach, in the Niteroi district, Rio de Janeiro on September 2, 2017

A 14-year-old black boy, Franklin Cruz grew up on hearing that his only horizon in life would be to become an underpaid worker in construction or, if he goes wrong, drug dealer.

But his experience with rugby has made him more ambitious: “Why not become an architect, doctor or lawyer?” He said.

– Girls and boys –

Robert Malengreau remembers the first time he came to the favela, with five big bastards from Oxford and a bag filled with oval balloons. The inhabitants were “somewhat dumbfounded,” he said.

Lucas says it all: “I had never heard of rugby.” The biggest cultural shock, says the 17-year-old, is when the coach shouted at the teenagers who were used to football: “No, stop shooting in the ball!”

The NGO highlights the collective values ​​of rugby, a sport considered less individualistic than football and in which there is no question that the players attack the referees.

Ⓒ AFP – Apu Gomes – | Lucas Aquino Chagas during a rugby course in the slum Morro do Castro in Rio de Janeiro on 1 September 2017

The social project also tackles the macho hurts of Brazilian society: girls and boys play together in touch rugby, version without tackle the sport.

Two teams have been trained to participate in a Beach Rugby tournament on the beach in Niteroi.

One of them brilliantly won the trophy, sporting white gray striped jerseys offered by the University of Cambridge.

But for Janaina Trancoso, 40 years old and mother of one of the players, the biggest victory is the glimmer of hope for those young people who would never imagine getting out of the isolation of the favela. “A door has opened for them. Over time, they will understand that the world is great and that there are other possibilities.”

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