RIO DE JANEIRO — Saturday is not a school day, so kids in Rio de Janeiro’s City of God favela fill the dirt roads playing soccer or pretending to be cops and robbers around dangerous alleys.
All the while, parents are watching over them, hoping their children don’t get scouted by drug dealers seeking messengers and couriers.
Another person is watching them. Marcelo Modesto was born in a calmer City of God than the infamous one of the 2002 film. He’s aiming to take some kids off the favela streets and try and turn them into professionals of a sport many Brazilians deem elitist, or exclusive to white people.
A caddie for four decades, the 54-year-old Modesto has opened a golf training center in the most violent area of the favela. Without public or private funding, from just a sheer passion for the sport, Modesto has attracted 100 kids to the ground in hope of starting some on the path to becoming professionals, or doing something to get off the favela streets.
The City of God golf training ground is part of a program that hopes to develop children from one of Brazil’s most violent favelas into budding golfers who are invited to use the course from the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.
Their introduction to golf is rudimentary, at best.
The City of God training ground is only 1,600 square feet (150 square meters), which is less than the size of your average putting green. A community center once filled the site. Interested kids, who are mostly Black, play with donated clubs and balls. Instead of holes, they hit buckets. As a warmup, they swing wooden sticks around their backs.
And no matter how intense practice gets, they remain alert for any sound of gunshots.
“I have friends who died, others were jailed. They didn’t have the opportunities like those I have had with golf,” Modesto told the Associated Press during a recent Saturday practice, only hours after his shift as a nightwatchman. “Once you get the ball and start swinging, you fall in love. And so have these kids.”
Modesto saw golf as a good idea for City of God kids from his own introduction. When he was 20 and had just left the Army, criminals came to him as a potentially great asset; he was a young man who knew how to fight and shoot. Plus, he had a connection with the favela.
“That shook me,” Modesto admitted.
What changed his life was an invitation to work at a golf club.
“I am very grateful to golf. It was like a second family. Club members were like the father I never had,” he said. “I learned how to speak well, I was distinguished here. I got clothes from club members, went out with the best looking girls here. I became a reference.”
Modesto hopes to spread the initiative into other Rio favelas so at least 60 children can go to the city’s Olympic golf course by February to take classes and be fed. Two have already been selected.
Ray de Souza Teixeira, 13, is already confident he will become a professional golfer even though he started playing on a proper course only last week. Teixeira’s grip of a club reminds Modesto of Tiger Woods.
Teixeira played rounds at the Olympic course on Monday, and was suitably dressed in khaki shorts, white shirt and black sneakers.
“No one had ever told me this existed in Brazil, only the rich knew about it,” Teixeira said between rounds. “I want to play a professional tournament and win so I can take my family out of the favela. Life there is too difficult.
“Whenever I hear gunshots, someone dies. Whenever there’s a police raid, someone dies. It is very bad when there’s police raids, there’s protests after that, too. Golf is my joy now.”
The Olympic course has seen little action since the 2016 Games, at high risk of becoming a white elephant. Many clubs have restrictive membership, and Brazil only has about 20,000 registered players, a figure that hasn’t changed much since the Olympics.
But none of that matters much to Leijane Silva, 50, who is also a volunteer with the City of God golf project. All she wants is for her daughter, Sofia, and other kids to stay away from crime.
“I just want these children to be out of the streets,” she said. “They develop another perspective here, they understand sport better. I am very thankful that my daughter is here.”
Jack Correa, the vice-president of Rio’s Olympic golf course, believes kids won’t be frustrated if they don’t become professional golfers because there’s other activities around golf that can attract them.
“More than 80% of our association today is former caddies. The bubble was burst,” Correa said. “The Olympics did push the sport forward. Now anyone can play, get to know the sport.”
Modesto believes the golf project can also improve the views of many Brazilians about children coming from City of God. He has ambitions to develop additional pieces of land so he can build a course, add two tennis courts and, if possible, a swimming pool.
“Golf was the light at the end of the tunnel for me,” he said. “I hope it will be just the same for some of those kids. I jokingly tell the people in power here that they will have to import workers in the future because the children of City of God will be too busy with sport.”
AP Sports Writer Mauricio Savarese reported from Sao Paulo