It’s a place where girls can play volleyball. They can do ballet (of course).
But soccer is a no-no.
That’s the way it goes in Brazil, the country that famously loves soccer. There was once a legal ban — from 1941 to 1979 — noting that “women will not be allowed to practice sports which are considered incompatible to their feminine nature.”
That law is no longer on the books. So things have changed. Brazil has a women’s national team (although there’s only room for a few elite players). The Brazilian player Marta is an international superstar.
But a social ban is still in effect. A girl who wants to play soccer faces teasing and taunting.
“When I started playing I felt there was a lot of prejudice, they call me a macho girl, they called me ‘lesbian,’ ” says Lahis Maria Ramos Veras, 14, who goes by the nickname Lala. She’s got dirty blond highlights and wise eyes.
That’s not going to stop her or her teammate, Milena Medeiros dos Santos, who’s 16. “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t play soccer. I don’t just like it. I love it,” Milena says, flashing a mischievous smile.
Leaning against the metal fence of a makeshift soccer field, she says she is serious about soccer. It’s her dream to be a professional.
So on a recent steamy Rio de Janeiro night, a group of girls are engaging in a subversive act. They’re kicking a soccer ball on a kind of a poured concrete basketball court surrounded by a high chain link fence. It looks more like a cage than a soccer field. But it’s all they have in this neighborhood in Rocinha, one of the city’s biggest favelas, or shantytowns, home to about 150,000 residents. This area is known as “roupa suja,” which means literally dirty laundry in Portuguese. It’s a place of jury-rigged electrical and water systems, dark congested alleys and constantly warring drug gangs.
They’re able to play because of a nonprofit group called Estrela Sports, whose volunteer coaches train boys in Rochina — and also girls.
Estrela Sports has been around since 2009. It was founded by Elaine Nascimento, who grew up in a working-class family in Rio and went on to become a professional soccer player. Because soccer has played a key role in her own life, she wanted to help other girls try the sport. The volunteer coaches currently work with about 20 girls, who train three times a week and play against other girls’ teams in Rocinha.
And it’s not just sports for the sake of sports. Coach Guilherme Silva says public education is pretty awful for many of the kids here. Soccer teaches skills they might not otherwise learn: to focus, follow directions, play in a group.
“The girls learn confidence, to deal with both defeats and victories,” he says. They may start thinking about setting new goals for themselves: “It’s an opportunity to dream [of] a different reality.”
But these girls don’t have it easy, he notes: “The biggest stigma, which is still strong in Brazil, is that girls who play soccer are lesbians or will become lesbians by playing soccer. This can lead to slurs and a lack of support from friends and families in the most conservative places,” although he says that some families are “supportive and more forward-looking.”
He’d like to see more Brazilian girls get a chance to play, but that’s a dream right now, too. “Women’s soccer faces a serious lack of institutional funding,” he says. He’s hopeful that the Law to Incentivize Sports will help get private companies to sponsor teams — and adds that new uniforms for girls are “changing to be more comfortable for women’s bodies — before, the women wore men’s uniforms. This is a step forward.”
Naturally, the girls in Brazil are curious about other girls around the world who play soccer. And girls in the U.S. are curious about the Brazilian girls who take the risk to play the game.
NPR producer Peter Breslow, who worked on this story with me, has twin daughters, Eden and Danielle. They’re 15 years old and are avid soccer players. They started the sport when they were 4, as did most of the girls they know. They gave their dad and me a few questions to ask of these Brazilian rule benders. OK, a lot of questions.
Why do they like to play?
Do they have coaches?
If they’re made fun of for playing, is it worth it?
Like good journalists, we asked the questions when we visited Lala’s home. It’s a cinder block house in a narrow warren of houses on a hill. We squeeze through a tight spiral staircase to climb onto the roof — the only place we can all sit comfortably.
When we sit down, we get some answers.
The teasing from boys in the neighborhood and at school isn’t quite as bad as it used to be. “So they’ve stopped criticizing me some because I’ve improved a lot since we first started,” Lala says. “They respect me more now.”
As Milena and Lala are talking, a loud bang suddenly rips through the air.
Sounds like shooting. It turns out to be fireworks.
Lala’s mom, who has joined us, explains that the traffickers are setting off fireworks to signal a police sweep in the area. Crack has become a huge problem in the favelas, and there are regular battles between the police and the drug gangs.
She’s known as Tia Thais or Aunt Thais, and she’s the Brazilian equivalent of a soccer mom. She goes to all her daughter’s games
We talk about soccer, but then another teenage topic comes up: dating.
The day we were there — June 13 — is the day after Brazil’s Valentine’s Day. And the night before, a 15-year-old boy stopped by the house to ask if he could date Lala.
“I like him,” says Tia Thais. “He did the right thing. He came and asked for permission. It’s very difficult today. People just hook up — that’s the truth, they just hook up.”
Lala tells us that while the young man was talking to her parents, she sat on the stairs, crying with worry that her parents would say no.
And then her parents said yes.
After she tells the story, the girls ask Peter if his daughters have boyfriends. He looks bewildered and says he doesn’t know.
The girls nod sagely.
“They probably do; we’re at the same age,” they say.
But as Lala and Milena will tell you, dating and even sex can start at a much younger age in Rocinha.
And they wonder if soccer might give girls an alternative.
“I have a friend here. She lives here in this neighborhood, a little bit higher on the hill. She’s 10 years old and she’s pregnant. I think if she played soccer, would she be pregnant right now?” Lala asks.
“If there were more incentives at the earlier levels of schools for girls to play, I think more would play. If girls weren’t just given dolls and makeup to play with,” Milena says.
And then the girls say they’d like to meet Peter’s daughters. We can’t fly them to the U.S. right then and there. So we do the next best thing and set up a Skype session.
It starts off a little awkwardly. There’s a lot of talk about soccer. But then it quickly gets to the good stuff — and Peter gets the big reveal.
Milena asks his daughters if they have boyfriends. And suddenly Danielle brings one of the boys who’s been hanging out at his house into the frame. Unlike Lala’s boyfriend, Danielle’s beau has not asked Peter’s permission to date his daughter.
Lala and Milena then invite Peter’s daughters to come play soccer with them in Rocinha.
Danielle and Eden seem excited, but say they’re pretty sure they’d lose.
And actually, Peter’s daughters might just be right. While Lala and Milena were at soccer practice, we talked to some of the boys we saw them playing with. And they admitted that they didn’t like playing with girls.
But it wasn’t because the girls weren’t good enough. It was because they were too tough.