In Brazil, Soccer Clubs Caught Trafficking on Children’s Dreams

Young boys from Pará on the Portuguesa pitch in 2006. /Photo Courtesy of Pública by Emerson Ortunho.

By Amanda Kamanchek Lemos and Luana Lila



“To play well you’ve got to eat properly.” This was Francisca do Nascimento’s reaction on the phone in Marabá when she heard her son, then aged 15, say that there wasn’t enough food in the “hostel” set up by soccer “scout” Ronildo Borges de Souza.

Francisca’s son was among 12 youngsters who came from the northern Amazon state of Pará to Santos in the south of Brazil. The boys traveled far, on the slender reed of a big dream: the promise of getting to play in the under-15 and under-17 championships for Portuguesa Santista, a century-old soccer team from the São Paulo coast, currently in the second division of the São Paulo league.

The twelve boys, all from poor families, were recruited by Ronildo, also from Pará, whom the parents had entrusted to negotiate any sorts of contracts on behalf of the boys. His qualification for the task: a “trainer” diploma from the Union of Professional Football Trainers of the State of São Paulo, obtained after a 36-hour theory course.

For children in a soccer-crazed nation like Brazil, a shot at becoming the next Ronaldo, or Ganso or Pará – soccer stars who were both from poor families in Pará state – is all but irresistible to both children and parents. In this case, it led parents to pack off their sons with a neighbor who used to visit the soccer academies, always on the lookout for lads with talent.

Hamilton de Abreu, father of another boy Ronildo scouted, says that Ronildo was well-known for taking kids to play in the Brazilian South-East:  “He was a good talker, mentioned other players who’d ended up with major team such as Cruzeiro or Atlético, so we trusted him,” he said. “Our boy really wanted to go, and he was also influenced by his friends, by the promise of arriving there and starting to play straight away.

“Since there are no opportunities here, we decided to let him,” he said. The father thought this was a chance for his son to make his dream come true.

Ronildo entered the boys for the championship of the São Paulo Soccer Federation by Portuguesa Santista as had promised, but gradually the telephone calls began to worry their parents.  “There came a time when he started to ring here and say:  “Dad, we’re not in a very good state here. There’s not enough food,'” Hamilton remembers. Like other parents, he claims he sent Ronildo US$175 a month to cover his son’s costs.

On 2 May 2011, after an anonymous tip-off, the Wardship Council of the Eastern Area of Santos visited the apartment at 90 Bassin Nagib Trabulsi Street, where the 12 boys were living packed into an improvised flat, a “sort of mini-bedsitter,”40 sq metres in area, at the top of the building, according to a subsequent report by the council.

Investigators described the boys’ situation as “very precarious,,” adding that what furniture there was was in “terrible condition, and all the bedrooms had been left dirty and in an unhygienic state.  We saw that there was no food and when we asked Mr Ronildo about this, he said he’d get some.”

The following day, the local Public Prosecutor applied for an injunction against the Portuguesa Santista team and Ronildo Borges de Souza, requiring them to stop using the adolescents in official matches or training sessions until they were under the guardianship of a responsible adult, and enrolled in a school – all rights guaranteed by the so-called Pelé Law, which regulates soccer in Brazil. It also demanded the immediate transfer of the boys to hotels and for the costs to be paid for all those who wished to return home, arguing that “it is impossible to accept that the young people should remain in such precarious conditions, without even receiving food.”

The injunction was granted by the judge for child and youth issues, Evandro Renato Pereira, who closed the case to the public, since it involved minors. According to court records, to which Publica gained exclusive access, the court issued summonses against Ronildo and the club. Two boys preferred to return home to their parents and the other ten were transferred to lodgings at the Pensão Capelinha.

On 13 February this year, the judge accepted most of the Public Ministry’s case, imposing a fine of US$25,000 for any new cases of housing young players in substandard accommodations, and ordered the defendants “not to enroll, or in any way be party to, the enrollment of players not resident in  the region in the São Paulo State Soccer Federation, unless they enrolled [them] in schools” and provided adequate housing, as well as medical, dental and psychological care for them, and a guarantee that they can return to their parents at any time.

The conviction of Portuguesa Santista

The judge also rejected Portuguesa’s defense, that its use of a middleman had essentially cleared it of any responsibility for his actions.  The club said  it “had outsourced the management of amateur football activities to Mr. Fernando Cezar de Mattos, who as a result had complete responsibility for the development of this department.”

“If he transferred this task to a third party (Ronildo), Fernando remained responsible for supervising the activities carried out by Ronildo,” the club insisted, concluding that it had “no connection at all with the facts discovered.”

The judge remained unconvinced.

“If they came to Santos and are enrolled in Portuguesa Santista, it is the club in the first place that has to ensure that they enjoy all the rights to which they are entitled under the Pelé Law and the Statute on Children and Adolescents, without prejudice to any further action against individuals,” ruled Judge Pereira. He continued:  “All those who in any way took advantage of this illegal transport of adolescents to Santos with a view to securing some future sporting or commercial advantage are jointly responsible for compensating the adolescents for all their damages . . . .The club, whether acting alone or through third parties, should not encourage adolescents to cross the country unless they have the best possible developmental conditions here.”

And, referring to Ronildo, who submitted in his defense authorizations from the boys’ parents, certificates of school enrollment for the adolescents (though conspicuously absent were any attendance records or grades) and supermarket bills, the judge commented:  “It is unacceptable for individuals connected to the club or business people with commercial interests to be the young people’s guardians.  The role of the guardian is relational and disinterested, not commercial.”

On the phone, lawyer Cláudio Luiz Ursini, Ronildo’s legal representative, told Pública, “It’s true there was no food, but that’s because if you let them, the boys would just eat rubbish.”  Ursini insisted that the boys had a better life with Ronildo than they did at home.  “What seems to have been considered a bad situation for the boys was much better than the state they lived in in their own city,” he said, justifying his argument by the poverty of their families.

Portuguesa Santista refused to comment.

Going through the sieve

In the past weeks, a Brazilian federal labor court has decided that teenage soccer players older than 14 should be contracted under specific conditions of “apprenticeship,” earning a minimum wage and receiving adequate accommodations. Improper handling of these young people has been investigated in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais – where the teams of Cruzeiro, América and Vila Nova had to sign a court-ordered agreement to overhaul their scouting practices. Atlético Mineiro, from the state of Minas Gerais was banned from continuing to recruit youngsters under 14, and warned that it would face stiff penalties if it did so again.

In Brazil, the desire to be part of the elite group of players who gain a new social status through soccer is the main factor in the vulnerability of parents and children to traps such as the one that caught the boys in Portuguesa Santista.

This is the view of ex-star player Raí Souza Vieira de Oliveira, one of the creators of the Gol da Letra foundation, which organizes cultural and educational activities for children and young people from low-income families.  “The majority of players in famous clubs come from different states,” he said. “Many are persuaded to take the risk by opportunists, who have no organization behind them.”

Even those who succeed in making their dreams come true often have their broader education harmed by going professional too soon, encouraged by families and clubs.  ‘The only result they’re interested in is a professional soccer player.  But this leaves out the other side, character development, guidance and education,’ says Raí.

While still adolescents, the players compete for places at the lowest level in the professional clubs, and try to make their mark in the state championships.  Santos FC, for example, holds trials – known as ‘sieves’ – every week in some city in Brazil at which as many as 500 boys between 10 and 17 will be assessed.  In 2011 30,000 boys went through the club’s trials.

In addition, many boys come through agents or business people who have contacts with members of the big clubs’ teams, and offer the boys for trials or to play in youth championships.  In some cases this role is outsourced more than once, as in the case of Ronildo, who was hired by Fernando Cezar Matos, who ran Portuguesa Santista’s amateur department on an out-sourced basis.

“It’s common for the boys to arrive at the clubs at 12 years of age and stay till they’re 20 to become professional players.  But they end up not being taken on as professionals, and what do they do with their lives?  They haven’t been educated, they have no qualifications, they have nothing at all,” says another ex-player, Neto, a famous commentator for a Brazilian TV Station.

Even the examples of success sometimes mean huge sacrifices for the boys and their families, as in the case of ‘Pará.  Before becoming the famous winger of Santos FC and then going to Grêmio, he had, as he says, “to sell my lunch to pay for my supper.”

“My parents had to sell nearly everything to support me,” says Pará.  “One day the trainer told me that he wanted to take three or four boys to São Paulo to play professionally, and asked me if I wanted to go.”  Despite the opposition of his parents, he accepted the trainer’s support and endured the three days’ bus journey to São Paulo, where he went through all sorts of hardships before becoming a successful winger.

The 2014 World Cup, a new mirage

The dream of becoming a professional soccer player has become even more exciting with the approach of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, both of which will take place in Brazil in the next four years.  “Big sporting events create the illusion that being a soccer player is an accessible path to a successful career,” says Renato Mendes, coordinator of the International Labor Organization’s International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor.

Mendes believes that this illusion can expose adolescents to risks greater than the ill-treatment suffered by the boys from Pará in Santos, mainly because they are removed from family life.  The absence of a protective network when dealing with other adults encourages abuse, including sexual exploitation.  ‘This frequently occurs in this type of power relation,’ says Mendes.  ‘The adolescent gets lost in the relationship that combines authority and affection because he knows he depends on this person to fulfill his dream.’

The International Labor Organization (ILO) wants a review of the organization and entry-level selection systems at all Brazilian soccer clubs. Mendes says: “We want to avoid the situation in which the child becomes an object by linking talent training centers to schools, more specifically to the Ministry of Education.”

The ILO’s decision to take on child labor in soccer was strengthened by death of an adolescent during a ‘sieve’ trial in Brazilian Rio de Janeiro State, in February this year.

Wendel Júnior Venâncio da Silva, 14, fell ill and collapsed on the pitch at soccer team Vasco’s Training Center.  He was taken to a nearby emergency medical center, but died.  The boy was from São João Nepomuceno, in the state of Minas Gerais, and had been in Rio de Janeiro for a period of trials at Vasco.  People connected with the club’s lower levels said the teen had brought a medical certificate that showed him as able to engage in physical activities.

But a medical certificate does not rule out responsibility on the club’s part.  Immediately after the incident, the Rio de Janeiro Public Prosecutor sought an injunction against the extremely bad conditions adolescents are made to endure at Vasco.  In April, the judge suspended operations at the Training Center for the club’s lower levels, giving Vasco 30 days to improve its facilities, or face a US$15,000 fine.

People trafficking?

In March, the São Paulo Public Ministry appealed the original judgment against Portuguesa Santista.  According to the prosecutor’s office, in addition to infringing Brazil’s State of Children and Young People Law and the Pelé Law, the case should have been classified as people trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation, an aspect that the judge’s ruling did not address.

According to the prosecutor,  the trafficking was evident in the way boys were recruited in Pará, through “a seductive tale designed to get the victims, from many points of view vulnerable, to leave their homes and seek their fortune in a distant place.”  Human trafficking in Brazil carries a sentence of three to eight years’ imprisonment, in addition to a fine for the enticer – in this case Ronildo.

In the appeal, the prosecutor also stressed the need to “pull away the curtain of invisibility that shrouds the practice of trafficking human beings.”

“Many players who come from other states seek their fortune in Portuguesa Santista because they think that one day, they will get a chance in bigger teams like Santos,” argued prosecutor Carlos Alberto Carmelo Jr.

This playing on the dreams of children makes it difficult for parents to prevent their sons taking the chance. Francisca, for example, tried to bring her son back as soon as she heard that he wasn’t eating properly, but faced resistance from the boy, dazzled with the chance to play for São Paulo.  “He dreams of being a famous player, earning lots of money, having a good life, but my dream for him is to get an education and qualifications,’ she said in a hasty telephone conversation.

The excitement of playing for São Paulo makes some of these boys forget the difficulties they went through in Santos.  ‘I spent two months in São Paulo playing friendlies and then I went to live in Santos, where I played in the Portuguesa under-15’s. It was worth it,’ says F, who returned to Pará in July 2011.  ‘When I got back home, we were happy and sad at the same time,” he said.  “I’m trying to go back to Santos as soon as possible.”


This article originally appeared on the Brazilian investigative news website, Pública.  

Diana Jean Schemo

Diana Jean Schemo

Diana Jean Schemo is president and executive editor of 100Reporters, and the founder and co-director of the Double Exposure Film Festival and Symposium, the United States' only investigative film festival.