A Fire Killed 10 Boys in Brazil, and Exposed the Underbelly of the Soccer Business

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A Fire Killed 10 Boys in Brazil, and Exposed the Underbelly of the Soccer Business

RIO DE JANEIRO — Even in death the haggling went on.

Christian Esmério was going to be the one — his family had been sure of it.

He was 15 and towering, a soccer player with an easy smile that belied his prowess between the goal posts. Already there was talk of contracts, and of buying a home for his parents, who had poured all their savings into the dream that their son might be the next great Brazilian soccer export — the next Ronaldo, Ronaldinho or Neymar.

Now, his father stood in a daze of grief outside a Rio office building, surrounded by lawyers. Just days earlier, Christian had burned to death in a fire at the youth academy of one of South America’s most famous soccer clubs, Flamengo. He was one of 10 players killed.

The deaths lifted the veil over international soccer’s biggest production line, and raised sweeping questions about a brutal apparatus that chews up untold numbers of young Brazilian boys for every star it mints.

But for the moment, as lawyers sparred over how much money families of the players killed in the blaze should get, there was just one simple question: What was Christian worth?

“Dreams.”

The word hung in the air as Rafael Stivel let out a sigh.

Mr. Stivel’s for-profit talent scouting operation had posted a note on Facebook mourning three of its graduates who had died in the fire at Flamengo. Since then, the messages had been pouring in.

They were not condolences. The Facebook post had inadvertently acted as an advertisement — a signal to ambitious parents that Mr. Stivel’s organization could get their boys into not just any club, but the great Flamengo. They wanted Mr. Stivel to give their boys a chance.

The soccer world in Brazil is populated by a variety of actors, some drawn by glory, but almost all attracted by the chance of breaking out of poverty, maybe even striking it rich.

There are the boys, of course, and their families. There are the investors and the middlemen like Mr. Stivel, who trawl the continent-size country in search of prospects as young as 9. And there are the teams, many in a state of such financial disarray that only the sale of the latest star keeps them afloat.

The profits from investing wisely, and early, in even a single player can run into the tens of millions of dollars.

To many in the game, the industry has grown out of control. It has morphed from a system intended to develop promising players into an international market whose value is $7 billion a year, according to soccer’s global governing body, FIFA. In this speculative environment, talented young athletes — some of them children — are bought and sold like any other raw material. In Brazil, the best ones are even referred to that way: as “gems.”

No one knows for sure how many boys are in Brazil’s youth soccer system.

There are no official figures. Estimates range from 12,000 to 15,000, but that is hard to corroborate. The Brazilian soccer federation makes no effort to track players until they turn 16 and become professionals.

But one thing is known: On the night of the Flamengo fire, Feb. 8, more than two dozen boys — most from poor families, and all hoping to achieve a dream — were asleep in a club dormitory.

In a country obsessed with soccer, Flamengo prides itself on being the most popular team, with wealth that is the envy of rivals across South America. But that adoration and power, it appears, may have allowed Flamengo to escape for years any real censure for the treatment of boys in its care.

In 2015, Rio state prosecutors sued Flamengo over the conditions at its training center. The prosecutors cited child-protection failures, declaring the conditions to be “even worse than those currently offered to juvenile delinquents.”

City officials issued an order closing the facility in 2017, but never carried it out, limiting their sanctions to dozens of fines.

In recent years, Flamengo spent millions to upgrade its youth academy. Last year, club officials boasted that the new facilities would be the best in Brazil.

But the dormitory holding 26 sleeping boys on the night of the fire was a makeshift structure, consisting of six steel containers fused together. It had never been inspected, according to local authorities.

Interviews with survivors of the fire and officials who investigated it suggest that a series of failures may have contributed to the boys’ deaths:

— Federal regulations require at least one caretaker for every 10 boys, but there was no adult present at the time of the fire.

— Survivors said the only exit from the dorm was at its far end. Some of the boys may have been in beds farther away from the exit than the 33-feet limit required by the regulations.

— The rooms had sliding doors, another violation because they can jam.

— And while each room had a window, the openings were covered with grates.

One boy who was in Christian’s room told investigators their door had stuck when he tried to get out. The boy managed to slide through the window grates. But Christian, a strapping 6-foot-3 goalkeeper, could not. When rescuers got to him, his body was so badly charred he could be identified only through dental records.

Flamengo officials did not respond to interview requests. But in February, its president, Rodolfo Landim, denied knowing about any irregularities when he spoke at a news conference after the fire.

“Our goal is to solve this problem as quickly as possible,” he said.

Soccer is hardly the only industry to attract Brazil’s desperate.

Sergio Rangel, a journalist who has covered the sport for three decades, says the youth-training system reminds him of the giant gold mine in Serra Pelada. The horrific conditions there were immortalized by the photographer Sebastião Salgado in the 1980s.

Desperately poor men from all over the country swarmed the mine’s open pit, turning over rocks in the hope of finding the nugget that would change their lives.

Soccer has also been a fool’s gold of sorts for many families. Some of them move hundreds, even thousands of miles to enroll their sons in training programs that will sort, scrutinize and, more often than not, reject their child as worthless.

“Pick one up, turn it over, and throw it away if it’s no good,” Mr. Rangel said.

The young men are not just disposable. To those who run the industry, they are often indistinguishable.

That much was clear at a memorial for the 10 players who died at Flamengo. Midway through the service, a team official rushed to cover a large montage of photos of the boys: someone had realized that a player who survived had been mistakenly included.

The streets of Xerém, about 50 kilometers outside Rio, teem with boys of various ages in red, green and white jerseys — the colors of the Fluminense soccer club.

Until the team built its training complex there, Xerém was little more than a swamp, locals say. But now, despite the humid heat that tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it is home to players and families whose lives revolve around the club.

Among them earlier this year was an 11-year-old nicknamed Maradoninha, for his resemblance to the former Argentine great Diego Maradona. Even in this hotly competitive town, Maradoninha was attracting attention.

Two years ago, a talent scout from Fluminense saw the boy, whose real name is Leandro Gomes Feitosa, play in a local tournament and approached his family. The boy was only 9, and Brazilian law does not allow soccer clubs to house children under 14. But if the family could get to Rio, the scout said, Fluminense would train him.

A group of local businessmen put up the money — for a cut of future proceeds — and the family moved more than 1,200 miles, from the town of Palmas to Xerém, to pursue the dream.

Almost all the families living in their community of 26 rowhouses have a similar story, Maradoninha’s father, Evandro Feitosa, said.

Maradoninha may not be old enough for high school, but he knows his family’s future is tied to his skills with a soccer ball. “God willing,” he said, “I’ll become a big player to help my family in Palmas, my family here and those in need.”

The chances of making it are slim. Fewer than 5 percent of the soccer prospects in Brazil will ever make it as professionals, by most estimates. Fewer still will earn a decent wage in the game. A study published by the Brazilian soccer federation in 2016 found that 82 percent of soccer players in the country earned less than 1,000 reais ($265) each month.

And for Maradoninha and his family, the odds recently got even slimmer: Fluminense released him.

Whatever the odds, whatever the hardship, there are enough soccer success stories to feed the hopes of young boys and families who have little else to aspire to.

There is Neymar, so successful he is more international brand than player. He is the product of a humble neighborhood on the outskirts of São Paulo. There are Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Romário, three former Brazilian World Cup winners, all awarded the title of best player in the world in their time by FIFA.

And most recently, there is Vinicius Junior, a flashy forward who rose out of Flamengo’s youth ranks. He once trained on the same fields as the 10 boys killed in the fire, and then he began living the dream: in 2017, when he was 16, Spain’s Real Madrid agreed to pay 45 million euros (just over $50 million) for his rights after he played just 11 minutes in his debut game.

All of those players, and hundreds more, have emerged from the Brazil’s soccer mill to ply their trade on the world’s biggest stages.

In his early days in the sport, Christian’s parents used all they had — and borrowed from friends and neighbors — to finance his soccer dream.

He seemed to be getting closer to his own version of the soccer success story. On March 5, the day he turned 16, he was expected to sign his first professional contract at Flamengo. His dream, years in the making, was in reach.

He died four weeks before that birthday.

Days after his death, his father, Cristiano Esmério, was standing outside an office tower in downtown Rio where public defenders were meeting with officials from Flamengo. He was with a group of lawyers. One turned to him.

When it came to compensation, the lawyer said, it would be unfair if Christian’s family was treated the same as the others. After all, he said, some of the dead boys had been recent arrivals to the club. But Christian was different: He had been called up to one of Brazil’s youth national teams. Clearly he was worth more than the rest.

Esmério nodded silently. He and his son had discussed money, too.

“Dad, let’s look for a house,” he recalls Christian saying when he got word that he was closing in on a professional contract. “My first paycheck, I want to pay for a house for my mom, so she doesn’t have to suffer because she doesn’t have water or electricity.”

A week before he died, the boy posted a tribute to his family on Facebook. Above two pictures of father and son taken a decade apart, he made a promise:

“All the sacrifice will be compensated, my old man.”

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