Mean Boys Can't Keep Girls Off The Soccer Field: #15Girls | KERA News

Mean Boys Can't Keep Girls Off The Soccer Field: #15Girls

Oct 13, 2015
Originally published on October 23, 2015 3:57 pm

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.

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

This month, we've been traveling around the world and talking to 15-year-old girls who are creating new opportunities for themselves, and sometimes they are pushing back against their cultures to do it. In Brazil, playing soccer when you're a girl is a subversive act. Girls can do other things in Brazil - play volleyball or dance ballet - but playing a boy's sport - that has consequences. Women's soccer was actually banned in Brazil for almost 40 years. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports on this with producer Peter Breslow. And we should say, he's the father of twin 15-year-old girls who you will also hear in this story.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Peter and I are in Rocinha, one of the biggest favelas or shantytowns in Rio, and in front of us, a group of girls is playing soccer. They're kicking the ball on a kind of poured concrete basketball court surrounded by a high chain-link fence.

PETER BRESLOW, BYLINE: Really, it looks more like a cage than a soccer field. But it's all they have in this neighborhood, which is known as Roupa Suja, which mean, literally, dirty laundry in Portuguese.

MILENA MEDEIROS DOS SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Milena Medeiros dos Santos has a mischievous smile. Leaning against the metal fence, she tells us she's serious, though, about soccer.

MILENA: (Through interpreter) I don't know what I would do if I didn't play soccer. It's not just that I like it. I love it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They have to love it to want to play. It's culturally taboo for girls to do contact sports, and that turns into discrimination. Lahis Maria Ramos Veras likes to be known as Lala. She's got dirty blonde highlights and wise eyes.

LAHIS MARIA RAMOS VERAS: (Through interpreter) So when I started playing, I did feel like there was a lot of prejudice. They called me a macho girl. They called me a lesbian.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The only reason they're able to play in the first place is because of an NGO, Estrela Sports, which brings in a coach once a week and trains both boys and girls in the area.

So Peter, when we came to do this story, we knew that it was going to be tough for girls who want to play soccer. But it's been surprising just how tough it is.

BRESLOW: Yeah, really surprising for me. I mean, my daughters - and by the way, their names are Eden and Danielle. They started playing when they were 4 years old, so they were really interested in this story.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: I want to know what they wear when they're playing.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Maybe you should ask them why they like to play.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Yeah and how they decided they wanted to play soccer.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: And if they have coaches when they're playing.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: And I know you told us they were made fun of. Maybe you can ask if it's worth it even though they're made fun of for their playing.

BRESLOW: We return to Rocinha, to Lala's home. It's a cinderblock house. We wind our way up to the roof, squeezing through a tight spiral staircase.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi.

BRESLOW: When we sat down, we got some answers to my kids' questions. Lala says, yes, definitely, soccer has been worth it.

LALA: (Through interpreter) So they've stopped criticizing me some because I've improved a lot since when I first started. They respect me more now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As Milena and Lala are talking, suddenly, this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Turns out it's not shooting. Its fireworks. Lala's mom has joined us, and she explains that the traffickers are signaling that the police are doing a sweep in the area. She's known as Tia Thais - Aunt Thais because she's the Brazilian equivalent of a soccer mom. She goes to all the games, supports the team.

BRESLOW: When we talk to her, it's the day after Brazilian Valentine's Day. And the night before, a 15-year-old boy stopped by the house to ask if he could date Lala.

THAIS: (Through interpreter) I like him. He did the right thing. He came and asked permission. It's very difficult today. People just hook up. No, that's the truth. They just hook up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lala tells us while he was talking to her parents, she sat on the stairs crying with worry that her parents were going to say no. After she tells the story, the girls have a question for Peter.

MILENA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do your daughters have boyfriends?

BRESLOW: I don't think so.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Portuguese) - no.

(LAUGHTER)

BRESLOW: But they don't tell me things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Portuguese).

MILENA: No.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Portuguese).

MILENA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's possible.

MILENA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They probably do, maybe.

MILENA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're at the same age they are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But as Lala and Milena will tell you, being a young girl in Rocinha is a lot different than the states. Dating and even sex start young, really young.

LALA: (Through interpreter) I have a friend who lives here in this neighborhood a little bit higher on the hill. She's 10 years old, and she's pregnant.

MILENA: (Speaking Portuguese).

LALA: (Through interpreter) And I think sometimes, if she was playing soccer, would she be pregnant right now?

BRESLOW: Milena also knows this girl, but she says most young women don't ever get the chance to play soccer.

MILENA: (Through interpreter) If there were more incentives at the earlier levels of school for girls to play, I think more would play, if girls weren't just given dolls and makeup to play with.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do they hope it'll bring them? You know, where will it take them? What are their hopes for the future?

MILENA: (Through interpreter) I hope it does bring me somewhere. But even if I don't become a soccer player, I do want to be a happy person. And I think it would be exciting to, one day, be able to, for example, meet your daughters in the United States, Peter.

BRESLOW: Well, maybe someday. But for now, we did the next best thing and set up a Skype session.

DANIELLE: Can you hear us?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yep. They can hear you. They said hi, you guys.

(LAUGHTER)

DANIELLE: So do you guys...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It started off a little awkward. There was a lot of talk about soccer. But then it quickly got to the good stuff when Peter got the big reveal.

MILENA: (Through interpreter) Do you guys have boyfriends?

(LAUGHTER)

DANIELLE: Do you guys?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They said that they both did, and they asked whose boyfriend is in the house that made everybody get so bashful on your end? And they want - and can he please come into the video chat?

DANIELLE: OK. This is my boyfriend, everybody.

(LAUGHTER)

BRESLOW: This is the first I'm finding this out.

DANIELLE: You, Dad? Dad, I told you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So that happened.

BRESLOW: Yeah, it did. And then Lala and Milena accorded my daughters the highest compliment.

MILENA: (Through interpreter) Could you guys actually come and play soccer with us one day in Rocinha where we live?

DANIELLE: That'd be so fun. We'd lose, but yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Portuguese).

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Peter's daughters might just be right. We talked to some of the boys we saw the girls playing with, and they said, straight up, they didn't like playing with girls. But it wasn't because the girls weren't good enough or they were too weak but because they were too tough. I'm Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

BRESLOW: And I'm Peter Breslow, NPR News.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: It was nice meeting you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: It was really nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: Goodbye.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Bye.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Bye.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: That story is part of our series exploring the lives of 15-year-old girls around the world. And we want to know what was your most difficult challenge at 15. Tell us on Twitter. Use the hashtag #15girls. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.