At least two Englishmen depart Brazil in this World Cup year as champions. Craig Robson and Michael Gardner arrived in southern host city Curitiba in April with nothing more than luggage and enthusiasm. They leave next week as substantial figures on first-name terms with the local mayor, as architects of a community project with a lasting legacy and as fluent Portuguese speakers.
Theirs is an inspirational tale to light up any Christmas. So, if there are any television producers reading this at the BBC, ITV, Sky, BT Sport, what are you waiting for? I give you a pair of ratings winners. Get them in, let them tell you their story, how they transformed the lives of a disadvantaged community by entering their schools, demonstrating the value of engagement and the power of dreams.
Talk about leading by example. Two lads in their early 20s from Newcastle armed with a love of the beautiful game cross the equator to lead a charitable project with barely any resources and make not only a fist of it, but a resounding success. Howay the bloody lads.
We are not talking polished sons of the ruling class, but ordinary young men with a desire to do something positive with their lives and to do something for others.
There are some in this world who contend that by nature man is an inherently nasty creature, base and avaricious. Allow these boys to disabuse you of that bleak outline. The first nut to crack was the language.
“We have learned so much about ourselves,” Michael said. “Our first encounter with one of our projects was a meeting with 30 women from a school all speaking Portuguese. We didn’t have a clue.
“The best thing that happened was being in schools every day teaching English. We inevitably learned Portuguese from that. You had to in order to know what the kids were saying. You don’t even realise you are learning it till it comes out of your mouth and it’s like, wow.”
Their mission, as part of the Lionsraw movement, a charity set up and run by football supporters, was to enter an impoverished neighbourhood with little social provision and deliver some love through football coaching projects in schools and the community. Through this mechanism relationships were formed with community leaders, politicians, teachers and, not least, with children and their parents.
They delivered 30 weeks of teaching in five schools. These schools have now forged links with as many schools in Newcastle that will result in a teacher exchange scheme next year supported by the British Council and the Prefeitura de Curitiba.
They also organised a workshop day for local teachers with an English language tutor connected to Cambridge University. The hope is that this will blossom into a formal resource for teachers in Curitiba.
In addition the boys ran five football projects across the city, an initiative that involved 600 children from some of the poorest and toughest areas touched by drug and crime issues. There was also a series of StreetGolf sessions to introduce kids to an alternative sport.
They estimate they completed 1,800 hours of volunteering, reaching out to more than 1,100 children. Parents reported that kids who had previously struggled to make friends grew in confidence as a result.
They signed off with a football tournament that brought schools and local professional teams together for the first time. More than 150 children took part, each receiving a T-shirt and a medal. Representatives from the Atletico Paranaense, Coritiba and Parana clubs graced the event as well as the mayor of Curitiba, who claimed it was “a day that will forever remain with the children”.
Craig explained, in an interview given in Portuguese, the difference between kids in Curitiba and England: “I said you can give the children here a ball, a field and someone who cares about them and they are happy. In England it used to be enough but now we are in the golden age of game consoles. Kids prefer to stay in and play Fifa.
“In Brazil we turned up with a football, a smile on our faces and broken Portuguese. That was enough. We were interested in them. There is a word in Potuguese, tio – it means uncle. That’s what they call us. We now have 1,000 Brazilian nephews.”
Craig, a sports science graduate, returns notionally to a job at North Tyneside Council. Michael, who left education after A-levels, is of no fixed workplace abode. It is hard to believe they will not be snapped up by some smart organisation keen to be associated with community projects that deliver.
Any takers? Newcastle United, perhaps? Looks like an open goal to me.