For a 13-year-old, Izaque José da Silva has seen his share of suffering. His two older brothers, Joseildo and Lucas, were killed after getting involved with drugs. Many members of the community in Penedo de Cima — located in São Lourenço da Mata, Brazil — castigated da Silva and his family, pegging him for a similar fate. But a drive to avoid his brothers’ tragic path, combined with his love for soccer, saved this young Brazilian’s life.
“My mother said that I won’t get involved with [drugs],” da Silva told ThinkProgress over email with the help of a translator. “I already lost two brothers. I have two examples.”
Da Silva doesn’t remember much about his eldest brother, Joseildo, other than the fact that his legacy as a notorious drug dealer lives on in infamy. When da Silva was five, Joseildo was killed by police in front of his grandmother’s house. He was 21 and his corpse was rattled with one bullet for every year of his life.
A few years later, his brother Lucas (then 13) began smoking and taking drugs. Lucas also got wrapped up in Joseildo’s underworld and was also killed by police at just 16. Before he died, however, Lucas had started work on a project for his community: a soccer field.
For years, the kids in Penedo de Cima had nowhere to play the beautiful game. Da Silva and his friends would play soccer wherever they could find space or just stay inside, he said. But in 2013, an organization called love.fútbol (LF) began construction on a field for the community and the da Silva brothers, Lucas and Izaque, got involved. LF is a nonprofit that builds soccer fields mostly in Latin America but has big plans to expand in 2016 to parts of Africa and the U.S. The fields are built and maintained by the local communities.
“When the project began, I went every day and tried to participate,” da Silva, who was 10 or 11 at the time, said. “I wanted to join because I knew that one day it would be of use to me. Nowadays, many people come here all the time. More people play soccer and no one stirs up trouble or starts fights.”
The desire to play is bigger than drugs.
He said that there are still drug users in the community but when they come to the field, it’s to play as opposed to dealing. “The desire to play is bigger than drugs,” he said.
Da Silva has new goals now. He wants to follow his brother Jeferson’s footsteps and become a sailor. And he seems to be on the right path. He likes studying history and geography in school. He’s now playing in a soccer school called Jogado do Futuro — a program founded in October 2015 on the field built by LF.
He said soccer keeps him focused, “pumps me up and makes me happy.” He cheers for Sport Recife, Spanish club Barcelona, their rivals Real Madrid, and French champions Paris Saint-Germain. He models his play after fellow Brazilian David Luiz, because he also likes playing defense, he said.
But life in communities like Penedo de Cima isn’t easy for young people like da Silva. Youth in his area don’t have many career prospects. It is not uncommon to see youth in da Silva’s community end up as street vendors. According to a poverty analysis by the World Bank, poverty takes more of a toll on Brazilian youth than other demographics. Brazil’s child labor rate is at least twice as high as any other Latin American country.
And in some cases, soccer has only contributed to the lower economic class’ hardships. In the lead up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, favelas were “socially cleansed,” according to the Guardian. The Olympics are scheduled to be held in Rio de Janeiro later this year and the Brazilian defense minister said protests should be “confronted and repressed.”
Recent years have also seen Brazilians protest rising bus and subway fares, and government corruption. Today, a political scandal whereby President Dilma Rousseff named former President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva her chief of staff to avoid corruption charges, is infuriating Brazilians.
Among the most substantial problems in the country though is the rampant levels of police brutality. Brazil’s police force has killed the same number of people in the last five years as American police have in the last 30. Among those figures are da Silva’s brothers. Police have also been accused of racism and classism while targeting poor youths in favelas.
But for now, da Silva’s future looks brighter than that of his brothers. And he attributes a lot of that promise to the new community field. “If we didn’t have this, we’d be doing other things, he said, “or twirling our thumbs at home.”
Originally published in ThinkProgress.