The legendary Brazilian footballer Jairzinho is passing on his skills to youngsters in an urban wasteland.
On a bare playing field in the neighbourhood of Manguinhos in the north of Rio de Janeiro, the football coach interrupts play as one of his players commits a fault. “You have to be watchful when you play and hit the ball,” he says decisively. “You have to keep a cool head.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Jair Venturo Filha, better known as Jairzinho, coaches youngsters aged 12 to 18 years of age at his football school, Fábrica de Talentos Furacão (Fabric of the Hurricane’s Talents).
Jairzinho (69) propelled Brazil to victory at the 1970 World Cup with a goal in every game, a record that still stands. He no longer has the muscular bulkiness and explosiveness of a middleweight boxer he once possessed. Today Jairzinho has a beer belly, puffy cheeks and greying hair. His involvement in football, though, has remained.
Jairzinho, who earned the nickname “the Hurricane” for his devastating pace during his playing days, has run the school since 2010, when South Africa hosted the World Cup.
At the field’s entrance, a small sign reads “The Hurricane’s Citizen”. Jairzinho not only wants to develop the teenagers’ football skills but also to see them educated. They can’t join practice if they have not attended school. Inside the tiny, makeshift clubhouse is a warning to keep off drugs. A poster shows how boys should use a condom.
Shantytowns, named Mandela 1, Mandela 2 and Mandela de Pedra after the late Nelson Mandela, encircle the school. Manguinhos lies just off the Avenida do Brasil, one of Rio de Janeiro’s major arteries and railroad. Children and adolescents in the area have a 500% greater chance of developing cancer or neurological problems because of exposure to pollution and lead, a study tasked by Brazil’s Association for Collective Health found in 2010.
“This school wants to save lives,” says Jorge Eiras, the unofficial assistant coach. He graduated from Rio’s state university with a degree in physical education. Eiras is a lifelong friend of Jairzinho.
No social safety net
“There are no opportunities to practise sports in this neighbourhood,” he says. “There is no social safety net. Football can take these children out of marginality.”
In Brazil, a country synonymous with the beautiful game, football has often been a way out of poverty for those fortunate enough to be endowed with talent.
Jairzinho himself is a rags-to-riches star. He took advantage of it when Brazil’s market slowly opened up in the mid-1970s and moved for a season to Olympique Marseille to make money. Now, more then ever, Brazilian players ply their trade all over the world for lucrative salaries.
Jairzinho may have philanthropic intentions with his mentoring but he is also eager to tap into the multimillion-dollar business that football has become.
He has proved that he has a knack for scouting – he discovered a buck-toothed son of a telephone company worker at the Ramos Social Club, a small indoor club in Rio. The boy would become famous under the name Ronaldo. But Alexandre Martins and Reinaldo Pita, Ronaldo’s agents, cut Jairzinho out of the transfer deals. He remains bitter about it.
“I discovered Ronaldo,” Jairzinho says. “I have coached Kalamata FC and Gabon. I have a football brain and I know how to spot talent.”
Jairzinho has a vast pool of 200-million Brazilians to scout from to find another prodigy, whom he hopes to sell on to a big domestic or international club.
Urbanisation, too, is driving more children to his school: the time of spontaneous games in the park or on the street is over. Football in Brazil is becoming more sanitised.
But, so far, Jairzinho has neither uncovered more outstanding talent nor has his school produced outstanding players. Slowly, Jairzinho is fading from the limelight, although he still commands respect from his players. They know he is still a world champion.
He sometimes ends the practice sessions with a game in which there are no goalkeepers but the players can only score with their heads. “It is the Brazilian way, otherwise it is too simple,” he says. “At my school you are not only taught by Jairzinho – one day you might become him.”