News / Sport / Work by Donna Bowater / World Cup

Beautiful game…ugly way to die

LIKE millions of teenagers, Rodrigo Kelton idolised Brazilian soccer superstar Neymar. Rodrigo Kelton 2

The schoolboy, born in the World Cup host city of Fortaleza, dreamed of being a top striker like his hero.

And he was due to captain the Brazilian boys’ team in the Street Child World Cup, a British-inspired competition starting next week for kids from around the globe who have slept rough.

But horrifyingly, Rodrigo was gunned down on his 14th birthday in a revenge killing just yards from his mother’s front door in one of the city’s poor favela slums in the northeast of Brazil.

He was shot in the leg, the shoulder and twice in the back of the head with a pistol as payback for an alleged robbery.

“It was horrible,” said his tearful mum Rosemeire Silva do Nascimento. “No one helped him.

“He was on the ground and his last words to me were ‘Please don’t let me die, Mum.’ But no one could help. It’s the last memory I have of my son.”

Rosemeire Silva de Nascimento, Rodrigo's mother
Rosemeire Silva de Nascimento, Rodrigo’s mother

While Brazil prepares to host the Fifa World Cup for some of the bestpaid players on the planet, including £50million star Neymar, this is the grim reality for hundreds of thousands of street children like Rodrigo.

Just seven miles from the Castelão stadium in Fortaleza, where Brazil will play Mexico in the World Cup group stage, homeless kids as young as six gather at a bus station after falling into a life of drugs and violence.

On the same day that Rodrigo died, 11 others were also killed in the state of Ceará. Six were aged 20 or under.

For Rodrigo, the Street Child World Cup was the chance of a lifetime to travel to Rio de Janeiro, a three-hour flight away, and represent his country with his six team-mates.

Rodrigo's teammates training on the beach
Rodrigo’s teammates training on the beach

“It made a big difference,” said Bernardo Rosemeyer, founder of social project O Pequeno Nazareno that rescued Rodrigo from the street.

“He accepted the challenge, quit drugs and he did not miss any training. The prospect of the trip to Rio had been a light in a life touched by too much suffering.”

The third of seven brothers and sisters, Rodrigo and his brother Raphael turned to the streets after Rosemeire, 33, became hooked on drink and drugs.

While hanging out at a bus station he started smoking marijuana, while Raphael, 17, used crack cocaine.

Rodrigo also had a claw tattooed on his arm, a sign he had killed a police officer. But his older brother Thiago denies he killed anyone.

His lifeline came five years ago when social workers from O Pequeno Nazareno took him in.

The charity works with kids aged six to 14, helping them study, get therapy and play sports.

Rodrigo was rated the team’s star player and it was hoped he would train with a local club after the tournament.

Thiago, 18, said: “He was really excited about travelling to Rio.”

Rodrigo wore the number 11 shirt – the same as Neymar at Barcelona. His mum said: “He was the force of the team. He was the best player they had. He could have been a professional. He played in the streets, he loved to play.

“He looked beautiful in his uniform. And he talked a lot about going to Rio.”

Visiting the grim spot where Rodrigo was shot dead, Rosemeire broke down in tears again. At the end of the road is a sodden pitch where we found three shirtless barefoot kids kicking a football. “He played here all the time,” Rosemeire said.

“What happened to Rodrigo could happen to any of them.

“I’ve seen this kind of violence before but I never imagined it would happen in my family.”

Boys play football close to where Rodrigo was killed in Genibau, Fortaleza
Boys play football close to where Rodrigo was killed in Genibau, Fortaleza

Paying tribute to Rodrigo, the tournament’s officials said: “Rodrigo’s background is typical of so many street children from broken homes. Through the work of our partners Rodrigo was doing so well and looking forward to representing his country at the Street Child World Cup.

“His tragic and senseless killing reminds us of the extreme dangers children face on the streets.”

Across the state of Ceará, there were more than 350 killings last month with the youngest aged just three.

Alex Pacheco, one of the teachers at O Pequeno Nazareno, said: “What’s happening here is ending the lives of our kids. It’s dangerous, it’s very ugly. And it’s too common. In just one day, 10 kids under 15 were killed.”

Rodrigo’s teammate Vinicius Pinheiro, 15, will play in his memory in the Street Child World Cup, which was firstSCWC PEOPLEstaged in Durban ahead of the 2010 South Africa World Cup and won by India. Sporting a Cambridge University T-shirt and a baseball cap Vinicius spoke of turning his life around thanks to football.

The lad who worships ex-Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo said: “I was on the streets because my mum beat me.

“I used to smoke marijuana, sniff glue. I was arrested by the police.

“But after three years with the project life is getting better.”

Originally published by The People

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