SAO GONCALO, Brazil (AP) — Four years ago and still a teenager, Vinicius Jr. took his first winners' medal to his hometown outside Rio de Janeiro, a place where drug gangs and vigilantes fight for control and children play soccer on the streets alongside piles of garbage.
Now, with the 22-year-old Real Madrid winger a key figure for Brazil's national team heading into the World Cup, his old neighbors in Sao Gonçalo hope to soon get another visit from the once quiet boy who, despite the danger, used to play soccer next to a highway. They want to parade him through the city with a World Cup winners' medal around his neck so his friends, former academy teammates and the few relatives left can see it.
“Look at the house where he lived," next-door neighbor Paulo Roberto said. “We can't say this is a door, it's all improvised pieces of wood around a frame. If you ring the bell nobody will answer because everyone here lives in fear. If you don't know who is the person knocking, you just stay silent. Vini always stayed away from trouble, which not all kids here manage to do.”
Roberto's small house, with many tiles missing from the roof and worn out pink paint on the outside walls, lies in the neighborhood of Porto do Rosa, where Vinicius lived until he was 14. The region is currently in a tug-of-war between drug dealers and vigilantes, with frequent shootings keeping children from playing soccer on the street.
“Everyone was afraid of violence, but kids didn't care, they wanted to play all of the time. If there was too much dirt on this street, Vinicius and the others would pick up a shovel, clean it up and play,” the 55-year-old Roberto said. “We could see from the start that Vinicius was really driven to be a soccer player.”
Another place where Vinicius dribbled his way through childhood in Sao Gonçalo is the state school he attended. A room at the Paulo Freire municipal school hosts an educational project sponsored by the winger so students learn how to use new technology tools.
His former teacher, Ana Cristina Pereira dos Santos, was emotional after she and about 20 students gathered to watch the kid she knew as Vini being called up to play in the next World Cup.
“He brings hope to all of those children. Many of them dream of becoming soccer players, it is no surprise. But others just want to get their education and live here proudly. And Vini makes them proud of here,” the 56-year-old dos Santos told The Associated Press as other students chanted Vinicius' name.
“Vini was really quiet with other students. He talked a little more to the teachers. He loved soccer from the start, he skipped a few classes to play. But he knew how to be gentle, he paid attention to the classes. He never gave me trouble.”
Vinicius' rise began at the local soccer school his father took him to when he was 6. Owner Carlos Eduardo Abrantes Beraldini welcomed an easy-going kid who dribbled past every opponent until he scored. Four years later, Beraldini took that same child to develop at his boyhood club Flamengo in Rio.
“He caught our attention from the start. We started playing him against older children, and he continued to stand out,” the 51-year-old Beraldini said at his office, where the walls are covered in shirts autographed by Vinicius Jr. “He thinks fast, he is quick, he can score in whatever way he likes. He made us laugh. No one knew how to stop him. On the field, he was unstoppable. Outside, he was calm.
“Vinicius always loved to train. He loves the soccer environment. When we played out of Sao Gonçalo, other kids usually did what they had to do and then went to do something else. Not Vinicius. He just stayed and watched other teams play, too,” Beraldini said. “At the age of 10, you could see he was going to be a professional. He worked hard. Sao Gonçalo was too little for him.”
Valeria Beraldini, who also works at the school, is thankful to Vinicius for returning whenever he has the time, showing others the medals he has won.
Vinicius has yet to bring his Champions League medal, which he earned after scoring Real Madrid's only goal against Liverpool in the most recent final. But Valeria Beraldini hopes he will do so at the end of the year, possibly along with a World Cup medal.
“He comes from a difficult region of the city and with a lot of talent and hard work he is now one of the best in the world,” she said. “Vinicius is the kind of guy that would come here unannounced to surprise kids, show medals and trophies he had just won at Flamengo or in Brazil academy teams. He is a star, but he doesn't act like a star.”
Nine-year-old Rayan Alves, one of the students at Paulo Freire municipal school, plays soccer whenever he can, loves to dribble, and stresses he wants to be more like Vinicius than Neymar — a rare feature for a Brazilian child.
“I know where Vinicius used to play here. And I played on his street once, the ball almost fell on the highway,” Rayan said as he held a plastic Brazil flag. “If he could do it, maybe I can do it, too.”
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Mauricio Savarese, The Associated Press