A mural hangs at the Street Child World Cup, a tournament featuring underprivileged children from around the world and is aimed at raising awareness for child homelessness.
Wilf Whitty

RIO DE JANEIRO -- From the old timers in the Brazilian boteco reminiscing about when Pele and Garrincha ruled the world, to the kid in the Bronx telling his buddies about the wonder goal he saw Cristiano Ronaldo score on cable the night before, soccer is a game of stories.

And nowhere are there as many stories as at the Street Child World Cup, an event that brings together teams of former street kids from all over the world to play in a tournament aimed at raising awareness of the plight of homeless children. This year's competition, held here in Rio de Janeiro, ended on Sunday, with Tanzania beating Burundi 3-1 in the boys final, and the Brazil girls team thrilling the home crowd with a 1-0 victory over the Philippines.

But the play on the field is far from the main takeaway or plot line. There is the story of the Burundi boys team, which features both Hutu and Tutsi players and is becoming a symbol of reconciliation in a country still recovering from the devastation wreaked by a bloody 12-year civil war, which left an estimated 300,000 dead.

"When we get back we're going to tour Burundi," says coach Teddy Bright. "The boys will go around the country and play soccer, and after each game they will deliver a message of reconciliation. They will tell people look at us, we're Hutu and Tutsi, but we can live together and play soccer together."

Then there is Crystal, the girl from the Philippines who spent the early years of her life living in a cemetery in Manila.

"Street children live here in the cemetery because otherwise they don't have shelter," she says.

And it is impossible to forget the haunting story of Rodrigo Kelton, the captain of the Brazil boys team who, in the run up to the tournament, was shot and killed by drug traffickers in his home city of Fortaleza. His death came on his 14th birthday.

Tragically, Rodrigo was murdered at a time when he had left the drug abuse and petty crime of his life on the streets behind and had dedicated his time to playing football at O Pequeno Nazareno, the care home and support center that is home to the Brazilian team. His shooting was reportedly punishment for a robbery that he had committed years before.

Every time the Brazil team scored at the Street Child World Cup, they held a picture of Rodrigo aloft.

"It sounds like something from a film script, but Rodrigo really was our best player," Manoel Torquato, a coordinator at O Pequeno Nazareno, says sadly.

The USA's representation included a boys team featuring players from Charlotte, Chicago, and Minnesota. The team is part of the nationwide Street Soccer USA organization, which operates in 16 cities and uses soccer to reach out to young people from poor backgrounds facing challenges such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction of parents and a lack of stable housing.

One of the difficulties the U.S. team had to overcome was how to blend boys from three different cities, the majority of whom were meeting for the first time at the tournament, into a team.

"We told them that after watching them on the pitch we knew they were talented players, and that by talent alone they could probably do well and win a few games, but if they were willing to trust each other, and play with respect for each other, then they could accomplish something really special," says Rob Cann, team coach and co-founder of Street Soccer USA.

And they almost did exactly that. The U.S. team was one of the most impressive sides in the early stages of the competition, scoring 23 goals and conceding only four in its opening five games, with talented strike pairing Isrrael Rivera and Ulises Juarez particularly impressive. The fairy tale run came to an abrupt halt in the semifinals, however, when Team USA was thumped 6-1 by eventual winner Tanzania.

But the real rewards at the Street Child World Cup do not come on the pitch.

The USA boys team takes on host Brazil at the Street Child World Cup.
Wilf Whitty

At a conference activity where children share their stories, the U.S. players spent time talking to the boys from India. Despite the difficulties they have faced in their own lives, the American kids are struck by the sharp differences between the lower rungs of U.S. society and the equivalent social strata in poorer countries.

"I'll be more thankful for what I have after this week," says Shauntelle Payton, from Sacramento. "I didn't realize there were kids who lived in dump sites and stuff. I'll be grateful that I have a bed and food to eat when I get home."

Despite officially accompanying the team in a non-playing role with her friend Alexis, Shauntelle makes a memorable substitute appearance in the U.S. 3rd/4th place playoff penalty defeat to Pakistan, played at Fluminense's historic Laranjeiras stadium, where the Brazilian national side played its first ever game back in 1914.

"One of the kids from India said he had to go to work when he was 12 years old," says softly spoken defender Jah'Qwel Williams, who, along with the other Charlotte boys Ty'ree, Deron and Ryan, plays with the Urban Eagles outreach program in the city. "He had to work from early in the morning until the next morning. That's crazy. I could never have worked when I was 12."

Street Child World Cup participants visit the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.
SCWC

As part of the Street Child World Cup there are also day trips to the legendary Maracanã stadium and a Rio de Janeiro favela. Both leave their mark on the American youngsters.

"It's like, totally different to the projects back home," Isrrael says of the Vidigal favela. "In the projects they actually have buildings, and stairs, and gates and stuff. Over here the houses are all stacked together, you have to build your own house, you got to find a way to survive."

Eduardo, a quick, skillful defender, is impressed with the tour of the Maracanã. "I didn't feel like I was in Brazil until I got there. I never thought I'd be able to step out onto the pitch like that."

The motto of the tournament is "I Am Somebody," a reference to the fact that for much of society, street children are at best invisible, at worst a pest to be eradicated.

"The aim is to use football and the arts to win rights for street children. We met a boy in South Africa who said to us 'When people see me in the street they call me a street boy, but when they see me on the pitch they call me a person,' so we know what a powerful tool soccer can be," says John Wroe, co-founder of Street Child World Cup.

The organization has already achieved a great deal. In 2010 the media attention that the first SCWC in South Africa generated led to the Durban police ending its policy of forcibly removing street children from downtown areas.

There are also tangible benefits associated with winning the tournament. "Winning gives us a platform. It puts the subject of street children on the map," victorious Tanzania coach Mutani Yangwe said after the final. "When we get back to Dar Es Salaam we will have a press conference in a five-star hotel. The president will see the boys as soon as they arrive."

And each of the U.S. players will take home their own special memories of Brazil. As the group trudges up the vertiginous steps of the favela, with the millionaire beach neighborhoods of Leblon and Ipanema glistening far below, Christopher, Isrrael's younger brother, tries out a few words of Portuguese he has picked up. He is met with smiles and waves from the locals.

There are mixed feelings about the twice a day servings of that Brazilian staple, rice and beans, however.

"Oh man, rice and beans...I'm never eating rice and beans again in my life," says Isrrael.

Jah'Qwel is more enthusiastic. "I never really eat beans when I'm at home," he says. "But that's going to change when I get back."

And so in a scruffy suburb on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, on three sun-kissed fields with names like the Maracanã and the River Plate, children forgotten by society chase after a ball and a prize far greater than any trophy -- the simple right to be treated as human beings.

For the U.S. boys and girls, it is a week they will never forget. As the balmy tropical night settles on the camp, the boys talk about their memories of their trip. Behind them a group of girls from Mozambique practice their dance steps, and a gaggle of boys from Nicaragua wanders past, chattering in rapid-fire Spanish.

"When I think of Brazil, I will think of a country with a big heart, filled with soccer balls," says Eduardo. "And rice and beans," adds Isrrael, before both dissolve into laughter.

James Young is a Brazil-based contributor to SI.com. He can be followed on Twitter @seeadarkness.

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