The World Cup is a month away. Roy Hodgson announces his England squad. For two young lads from Newcastle the tournament is already five weeks old. Regular readers of this column will know them as Craig Robson and Michael Gardner. They may already be England’s best performers this summer. It is difficult to see how any of Roy’s boys might eclipse their contribution even if they were to win the coveted pot.
To the locals in Curitiba, which is scheduled to host four matches as well as the Spanish squad for the duration, Craig and Michael are the faces of Englishness. As a football nation England do not register in this part of Brazil. None of the kids in the schools and on the streets of Curitiba imagine themselves English when the kick-about starts. There is no great desire to be Rooney or Gerrard. Yet when Michael and Craig pitch up with cones and whistles speaking pidgin Portuguese, eyes grow as big as footballs.
And it does not stop there. Curitiba’s mayor, Gustavo Fruet, cannot get enough of the association. Last Friday they were catapulted to the top of the political food chain with a personal invite from him to attend the launch by the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, of a new transport network in the city.
The charitable initiative with which they are involved, Lionsraw, coordinates projects to develop social and educational programmes for young people in countries hosting major football championships. It has become a national story in Brazil. The media is fascinated by the tale of two young Englishman travelling 6,000 miles to inspire the dispossessed, to encourage them through education and engagement to bust the ceiling imposed by social privations and, if that were not incredible enough, to teach kids from a country that has won the World Cup five times how to play football.
Celebrity is something for which they had neither bargained nor prepared. “We are just two lads from Newcastle trying to help and to develop as people,” Craig, 23, says. “The fact that it is getting so big makes us nervous,” adds Michael, 21. “Whatever we say the children copy. We could have a thousand children speaking Geordie when we leave. It is a running joke here, we teach them English, they teach us football.”
Except that is not quite true. Both are FA level 2 coaches. “Passing is a bit of an issue in some of the projects and favelas,” says Craig. “They don’t try to pass the ball they just run. It’s almost like: ‘We are Brazilian, we can do this’ but they can’t pass five yards. It’s all about attacking here and taking people on. They struggle with some of the drills because they don’t want to pass.”
Though football is at the heart of what Craig and Michael deliver, the message stretches way beyond jogo bonito. It is about lifting people out of their circumstances, aiming high, progressing through learning, engaging positively with their community and thus the world. The kids they are touching have none of the welfare benefits that protect the disadvantaged in Newcastle and the rest of Britain. Even the better state schools they visit are stretched and bereft of resources.
There is, however, a sense of community that has been eroded on our shores, a sense of belonging rooted in the church, which remains the binding agent in Brazilian society offering spiritual comfort in the absence of material support. The men raised almost £10,000 to pay for their trip, which they hope might last until December, long after the World Cup has moved on. Not a bean came from Newcastle United, which is an open goal missed by a regime in desperate need of positive commentary. A tweeted picture of a young Brazilian kissing the Newcastle badge was another gift missed by the club.
They are loved in Brazil, however. “The welcome from children blew us away,” Craig says. “They had prepared lots of things, music and performances, welcome speeches. It took us aback a bit. We had been speaking on Skype but this showed us how much they had been waiting for us to arrive. It was a big deal for them and made it a big deal for us.
“When it’s over we don’t want to say: ‘Thanks, it’s been a brilliant six months, we’ve loved it,’ and disappear back home. We want people to say their English has improved and to keep learning it, or to say: ‘I really enjoyed their football sessions, I wonder if I can help others like Craig and Michael did.’”
The sentiment is echoed by Michael. “We are fearful the hype will die down after the World Cup. They might not be as excited to get involved.
“But we want to leave a legacy through our partners in the city and Lionsraw, who maintain relationships not as a business but as friends. We are investing money in local buildings, educational centres and football facilities. Work starts next week on a centre in nearby Cajuru, which will be here when we are gone. In that sense we are here for the long term.”
Howay the lads!