Meet Lucas Rodrigues, a professional soccer player from a local favela known as Santa Marta, who is looking to make his mark in a sport that could potentially change the course of his life.
Simon Bruty/SI
By Greg Bishop
June 20, 2014
Simon Bruty/SI

RIO DE JANEIRO – Meet Lucas Rodrigues. He’s 20 years old. He lives in the favela known as Santa Marta, near the top of a mountain in a house that stands above the others, most of the Rio from the postcards spread below.

Rodrigues is not rich. His house, the view to die for notwithstanding, is not a mansion, not for upper or middle class. Seven people live inside, in cramped quarters, the roof slanted, the whole structure susceptible to rain. There is, he explains, a real risk that in a heavy downpour his family’s home will simply slide down the mountainside, all of their possessions scattered. But while even his parents share a bed with his younger brother, Rodrigues sleeps alone, on a mattress near the front door.

“It’s complicated,” he says on Friday afternoon.

In this installment of Viagem Brazil, SI's Greg Bishop and Simon Bruty discover a favela known as Santa Marta and a soccer player looking to follow in the footsteps of local Gods like Neymar, Fred and Hulk.
Sports Illustrated

​Rodrigues has a job that earns him prestige in the neighborhood and credibility on the streets. He does not earn enough for his own apartment, or to improve his family’s living conditions – not yet. But he has become what every boy who grew up in his favela and in the neighboring favelas and in all the favelas across Brazil have dreamed about, in this case, “every,” only a slight exaggeration.

See, Rodrigues is a soccer player, and a professional at that.

“I’m the same position as Neymar,” is the first sentence he says to the visitors who came to meet him. A forward.

Soccer starts early in Santa Marta. For Rodrigues, it started as soon as he could walk. He learned to play barefoot, same as the boys on the field down the winding, narrow path of steps. On Friday, his brother engaged in pickup soccer on that field, the ocean in the distance, the homes in the favela stacked on top of each other all the way up the mountain on the other side.

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Dogs barked at anyone who ventured near the houses. Mothers hung laundry from clotheslines. Children scrambled past, oblivious to the poverty, on their way to anywhere. Rodrigues wore white flip-flops and board shorts, and, like the rest of his neighbors, he seemed concerned about Brazil’s chances in the remainder of the World Cup. He did not like the way the team he roots for played against Mexico, all the shots, sure points, the Mexican goalkeeper had saved. The remainder of the tournament made him uneasy, a sentiment echoed across Rio, by rich and poor alike.

Everyone in the favela watches the Brazil games, three, sometimes four generations all crowded around whatever television works that day. So many of the hometown stars grew up playing soccer in the street, Neymar, Fred and Hulk among them, just like Rodrigues and his friends. Everyone wants to be like them, to take a step toward the soccer life.

Rodrigues has. He plays in Rio’s second division, a world removed from the World Cup. He makes 1,000 reals (about $447) each season. He wants more, for his family, especially for his mother, for himself. His father still works as a butcher. His mother still works as a maid, down the hill, cleaning someone else’s house. Life is still hard, still complicated, he says. But it could be much, much worse. It has been.

“Those holes in the wall are gunshots,” he says.

Santa Marta rises above Botafogo and Laranjeiras, two upper middle class neighborhoods below. According to the most recent census figures, Santa Marta has roughly 8,000 residents who live in mostly brick houses but also some made from wood instead. There is a samba school, a supermarket, a bakery and a soccer field.

The view here is earned, the hard way, the walk straight up.

Local children playing soccer on the concrete pitch in the Tavares Basto Favela.
Simon Bruty/SI

For three-quarters of his life, Rodrigues stayed inside after dark. Most of the children did. “There were a lot of deaths,” he says. “Violence. When police and the people disagree, children couldn’t play. We couldn’t go outside.” Gunshots rang out at night. Dealers sold drugs in the open, carried semiautomatics in the streets.

The experiment started in 2008, in November, when Santa Marta became the first favela to undergo pacification. Many have since, but at the time no one knew how, or whether, the experiment would work. Police created a station on the hill above the soccer field, above the ramshackle houses and the drug dealers and the street gang that controlled the area, known as Red Command.

That process scared the residents at first, Rodrigues says. Few trusted the police, let alone wanted to work with them. He figured the gangs and the cops would clash and then the unexpected happened. They didn’t. “It’s normal,” he says. No more drugs. No more gangs. No more gunshots.

Even if that is not altogether true, a positive picture painted for the visitors, the difference is visible. Santa Marta is so pacified it has scheduled tours, its own Facebook page and several tourists from various countries on a Friday afternoon. It’s generally considered among the safest favelas in Rio, an example of how and why pacification works.

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Still, not everyone is, well, pacified, as evidenced by a sign that hangs above the soccer field, outside what they call a model favela. Residents with houses in danger in heavy rains, like Rodrigues and his family, are being forced to move lower into the mountainside, into those model homes, in the years to come. Rodrigues says his family wants to move; others do not. “Model of what?” the sign reads.

What connects the old Santa Marta to the new Santa Marta is soccer, futebol to the locals. Inside Rodrigues’s house, trophies won in local competitions take up the shelf nearest the door. He seems embarrassed to bring visitors inside, past the rickety washer out front and the laundry on the clothesline and the empty beer bottles stacked against the wall.

He says his neighborhood inspires him, to be like Neymar, Ronaldo, all the soccer Gods. Futebol is his opportunity to get beyond here, to get down there, to the Rio he can see but hardly knows.

He views his current team, Angra Esporte Clube, as a mere steppingstone toward somewhere better, someplace else. His home stadium holds 5,000. The Maracana, Rio’s grandest soccer kingdom, site of the World Cup final next month, that’s the dream.

He steps outside, back into the real world. The dogs are still barking. The houses are still missing windows, their roofs damaged, patches exposed to the elements, doors tilted and unhinged. His neighbors are still poor. His family, too. But one of his friends plays on a development team for Flamengo, the local powerhouse, and that also gives him hope.

“I keep on trying,” he says. “But it’s hard sometimes.”

He looks into the distance, then scribbles an email address onto a notepad. For when he’s famous.

“It’s complicated,” he says again.

This is the eleventh piece in a series throughout the opening weeks of the World Cup in which SI senior writer Greg Bishop and photographer Simon Bruty chronicle their travel to offer a taste of the cultural side of Brazil.