Kidnapping of mother shows Brazil's king of football the price of fame

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This should have been the happiest of weeks for Dona Marina. Her son - a star footballer tipped as the new Pele - was on the verge of a multimillion-pound transfer to Real Madrid, and she was set for a long period of celebration.

But police are now investigating her kidnapping, piecing together photofits of the two men who stormed a Saturday barbecue on the Sao Paulo coast and abducted the 43-year-old Marina Lima de Souza.

According to witnesses the men - one of whom was armed with a pistol - jumped into the back garden of the house in Praia Grande. "Who's Dona Marina, Robinho's mum?" demanded one, before locking the guests in an upstairs bedroom and bundling their target into a silver Mercedes. By Monday morning, when police found the abandoned car near by, there was still no word from the assailants.

Kidnaps are nothing new in Sao Paulo. According to the Department of Public Security, there were 83 such cases between January and September of this year. But this time the story has hit the headlines. After all, it involves Brazil's new rei (king) of football: a superstar set to become one of the country's richest players.

Brazil's top players routinely hire private security guards, wary of the attention their pay packets can draw. Robinho, who plays for Santos, had one himself and was known to be worried about his family being robbed.

Angelo Herrera, a sports journalist, said: "In Rio, just as much as Sao Paulo, kidnap is a really worrying thing for players.

"It isn't the first time something like this has happened with a football player," he explained, pointing to the kidnappings involving two other prominent Brazilian players.

"You'd think that because he was from a poorer background the kidnappers might not have done something like this, but they obviously knew exactly what they were doing and that he was going to be sold for all this money," he added.

Robinho's Bernabeu debut would have marked the highpoint in a remarkable career for the 20-year-old prodigy. Born into a poor community in Sao Paulo, Robinho's rise to fame has been as mesmerising as the step-overs for which he was known. A descendant of slaves from Brazil's north-east, his salary is thought to be around 180,000 reais (£30,000) an astronomical amount in a country where 30 per cent live on the minimum wage.

In recent months European giants such as PSV Eindhoven, Benfica and Chelsea had all been linked with the baby-faced Brazilian. Sources say he would have commanded a fee of at least £14m.

"Robinho was a nice guy from a humble family," said Mr Herrera. "His mum was a maid."

The kidnapping closed a traumatic week for Brazilian football. On Friday a player for the Minas Gerais team America was shot dead at a nightclub in Belo Horizonte. He had been enjoying the samba with friends when drug traffickers stormed the venue, one of whom was carrying a machine gun. Claudinei Dutra Resende, 25, was shot in the back of the head, and five others were injured. A week earlier, another player, Serginho, had a heart attack and died on the pitch whilst playing for Sao Caetano.

For all its beauty, Brazilian football has never been a simple business. As in many walks of Brazilian life, corruption is widespread. After the 1998 World Cup a parliamentary inquiry was launched to probe the darker side of the game. "There are many truths," said the striker Ronaldo at the inquiry.

There is also a great deal of calamity. Last year, the World Cup star Romario lost his temper after an irate fan threw six chickens at him during a training session in Rio de Janeiro. "You're going to give me a bollocking in my own home?' he shouted before attacking the fan. Both Romario and his assailant were charged after one of the chickens died, incurring the wrath of animal rights activists.

As Robinho's family wait to hear from the kidnappers, police are focusing their investigation on Baixada Santista, a middle-class area outside Sao Paulo. Alberto Corazza, Sao Paolo's police chief told reporters yesterday: "All I can say is that people who achieve success so quickly should be extremely careful ... to avoid this kind of incident."