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Expert Comment - Favelas and Football: The other side of Rio

Favela Friday 27 June 2014

As the World Cup continues, Dr Joel Rookwood files his final dispatch from Brazil, looking at life in the city's favelas.

Rio is a unique city of contrasts and colour, famous for its carnivals of football and samba. Brimming with sites of natural beauty and world heritage, its people are as warm as the weather. Rio is however also synonymous with crime, notably violence and drug trafficking. Such problems are usually attributed to the favelas, which are home to approximately 12 million Brazilians - around 6 percent of the population.

In the build up to the World Cup various European television broadcasts highlighted the dangers of favelas. After arriving in Rio to report on the tournament, I went to visit one. An intermediary had put me in touch with Artur, a father of three and lifetime resident of Rocinha favela. The hillside community is the biggest favela in Latin America, with an estimated 300,000 people living in its various neighbourhoods.

The authentic tour began with an exhausting walk up a long series of narrow passages to Artur's half-built house near the top of the favela, where I was welcomed by his family. The more elevated dwellings are afforded the best views but are typically home to the poorest people. Artur exchanged pleasantries with countless people en route, and their reception of me typified the friendliness that permeates the favela.

Elsewhere in Rio middle class Brazilians complain of paying 'European taxes for Mozambican services'. (Mozambique in contrast being the poorest of the former Portuguese colonies). In the favelas however, taxation seems non-existent and infrastructure appears unconventional.

Politicians rarely intervene in favelas - save for the occasional construction of a road or community facility. Such developments often strategically coincide with elections (in which all adult citizens are legally obliged to vote), not to mention the hosting of sports mega events. Around a sixth of Rio's favelas are 'policed', but such intervention is typically unwelcome, often culminating in the exchange of gunfire.

Compared to the slums of Africa and Asia the Latin equivalent stand apart. In Rio at least, whilst there is poverty in favelas, the majority do not live in squalor. Most houses have electricity, running water and drainage, although sanitation is basic and education and other services are limited. "The people here are very poor", Artur said. "Children leave school to work, giving money to their parents. But they can make more money by selling drugs. So many start young and die young." Despite the reputations and challenges of favela life however, Artur proudly claims that crime in general is limited: "People don't steal in Rocinha. This is a safe place. We don't lock our doors and there is no gate on the favela. This is our community."

Favelas are bustling, noisy places. As we walk between houses, Artur intimates that the only way to avoid listening to your neighbour's music is to raise the volume of your own. Whether a house or business, virtually every dwelling has a flat screen television on view, which is particularly evident during a World Cup, with every match screened. We could watch a free kick awarded as we passed one house, and see it saved at the next. "Of course Brazil will be champions", Artur defiantly predicts, as rivals Argentina score a late winner against Iran.

Between televised matches, young people congregate on any available surface to imitate their footballing heroes. As we passed a 3v3 game being played against a breathtaking backdrop, I was invited to join in. With rolling substitutes greeting every goal, I was instilled as the only constant player for an entire hour, as various barefooted youths showcased their skills against the 'gringo'.

The growing number of onlookers jeered simplicity and applauded skill, as every movement was drenched in flair. Brazilians it seems, learn to keep things complicated on the pitch. It offered a welcome break from my broken Portuguese, as communication is simpler through the global language of football. Fluency is commonplace in favelas, just as in Liverpool.

The most talented participant was a 14-year-old girl, who played whilst smoking, in between breastfeeding her baby on the sidelines. It was another shocking reality, and seemed a microcosm of life in the favela.

As the sun set on the tour I thanked Artur for offering me access rarely afforded to outsiders - and he thanked me for coming. "We like when you come and walk inside the favela and see how we live. You can talk about us and help to change how the world sees us." I headed back to Copacabana beach amazed by Rocinha's inhabitants and uplifted by the experience.

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