Rugby project in 'Paradise City' favela offers youngsters Olympic dream

Story highlights

  • Rugby Para Todos was set up 12 years ago
  • 5,000 young players have passed through
  • One student just missed out on the Olympics
  • Project emerged amid drugs and violence

(CNN)A concrete wall divides the two worlds of Paraisópolis, exposing the contrast of fortunes in the suburb of São Paulo.

On one side of the barrier, the surroundings live up to the location's meaning in English, "Paradise City" -- a grand apartment block towers over a newly-laid tennis court and a glistening blue swimming pool.
    But a few meters of concrete away lies São Paulo's second biggest favela, with a population estimated at 100,000, the unlikeliest setting for a sporting feelgood story.
    Deaths and drug deals are not uncommon in these streets, which are packed with 20,000 homes -- where many of the inhabitants are struggling to make ends meet.
    However, in the heart of this sprawling slum lies a sporting project that is giving young athletes the chance of a better life and to one day follow in the footsteps of their idols at next month's Olympic Games, 400 kilometers to the east in Rio de Janeiro.
    Some 5,000 budding players have passed through the doors of "Rugby Para Todos" (rugby for all). It was set up 12 years ago by Mauricio Draghi and his friend Fabricio Kobashi, who played at the same rugby club.
    "When we started and first mentioned rugby, people would ask, 'Is that a game you play with horses?'" says Draghi, who hails from one of Sao Paulo's more affluent neighborhoods. "They genuinely had no idea. It was just a rich sport."
    For 17-year-old Bianca Silva, this "rich sport" has given her the chance to represent her country in recent months although her inexperience saw her miss out on selection for the final squad at Rio 2016, where rugby sevens will make its debut.
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    "I got into rugby through an invite from some friends that played," she recalls of her introduction to the sport in the favela.
    "My first feeling was that it was a strange sport because I'd never heard of it and I had no idea you could become an athlete, much less that I would be successful, that I would get selected by Brazil and play abroad."
    Silva was from a very poor family and, when the Brazilian national team management came to agree her first contract at her home, Draghi had to help as her mother was unable even to write.
    "Now she's the person that brings home money for the family," says Draghi of the rising star of the game in a South American country where players are not professionals but can earn between 1,000 and 2,500 Reals ($300-760) a month in costs.
    In Silva's neighborhood, all the girls are "very proud of her," according to Draghi, who says she is deemed "the lioness of the Olympics", an accolade that has stuck despite just missing out on Rio.
    The Olympics, though, remain her ultimate ambition.
    "It would be a unique opportunity and a dream come true," says Silva, "an opportunity to show all the grit and determination that takes the Brazilian chest to defend their nation."
    It's an aspirational story for those in poverty in the favela to find a better life, and the project's founders are confident that more will follow.
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    Rugby was brought to Brazil at the same time as soccer in 1894 by Charles William Miller, who had been studying in England and set up São Paulo Football Club.
    Today, the round ball remains king while rugby, which has very much been living in the shadows, is beginning to thrive as the shortened sevens format prepares to make its Olympic debut.
    For four years, Draghi and Kobashi ran the project as volunteers but, with the advent of funding from a government initiative taxing companies to pay for sports-related ventures after Brazil won the right to host the continent's first Olympics, they are full-time and things have snowballed.
    "If someone had said rugby will be in the Olympics in Brazil when we started, I would have said 'You're dreaming,'" Draghi admits. "Without the Olympics, we would have been struggling. Now we're living that dream.
    "There's a sports law in the government to fund social projects, so without the Olympics we would be nothing."
    To achieve that dream has come at a cost.
    "We have a lot of bad stories too," Draghi adds. "We have lost guys working in crime, there are a lot of drug dealers -- we have a lot of that and see it every day.
    "But we have a lot of respect from the community, and you ask the kids and they'll tell you that rugby changed their lives. They say things like, 'I was very violent and now use my energy in training,' and that's good with many players with brothers in jail or fathers who have died. This is common for us."
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    One such success story is Gabriel Oliveira, whose rugby prowess saw him named Brazil's junior player of the year in 2014 and earned a six-month stint in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he playing at both junior and senior level.
    He was alerted to Rugby Para Todos by a friend, and one of the organizers saw him watching and called him over to take part in a session.
    "That's when I met rugby and Rugby Para Todos," says Oliveira, who is bidding to win a place back in the national squad after a knee injury. "Before making that first practice, I had no notion that I would fall in love with this sport and that I would become an athlete at this level.
    "Before I became a rugby player, I had a normal childhood playing with my friends in the community where I live and studied, and that's all. It's difficult to even talk about where I would be without rugby in my life.
    "So I am eternally grateful to Rugby Para Todos for everything. Thanks to it, I have been to so many places and done so many things. Thanks to this sport I am a totally different person."
    The achievements of the project have not gone unnoticed. Draghi, who represented Brazil in XVs rugby at Junior World Cups in Italy and Romania, was handed the honor of being among Brazil's Olympic torch bearers in Brazil ahead of the Games.
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    The first children to pass through Rugby Para Todos are now reaching adulthood, and Draghi calls them "the best players of their generation."
    But the initiative is much more than just about rugby. It donates food to some of the poorer communities and has an education program intertwined with its sports activities.
    For its founders, the results of that bring arguably even greater satisfaction.
    "It's a great pleasure to see our kids achieve so many results," Kobashi says. "Some of the players are beginning to play for the national teams and some have the chance to play for Brazil in the Olympics in Rio.
    "But more than the sports results, what brings more pride for me is to see that the kids are absorbing so well the rugby values, taking it out of the field and spreading this positive culture into the whole favela of Paraisópolis.
    "Rugby is a culture that will stay forever in this community and it is a model to reach and help many others."