Standing precariously in the aisle of a rattling public bus as it roared through Rio’s remote impoverished suburbs, his red kit bag slung over his shoulder, professional footballer Genilso de Oliveira flashed a sparkly smile. “It’s tough,” he said.
He officially earns 724 reals ($322) a month but is rarely paid. He spends four hours a day on public buses, seven days a week, and pays the fares himself. He wakes at 6 a.m. and sleeps at 1 a.m. just after washing his only training kit ready for the next day.
But Genilso, who turned 31 on Sunday, is still betting on making it big.
With trophy players such as Neymar — who earns $12 million a year at Barcelona — about to entertain billions during the World Cup, it is easy to overlook the fact that thousands of Brazil’s 20,000 professional players live on the minimum wage or less.
Genilso is the captain of Futuro Bem Próximo Atlético Clube in Rio de Janeiro. The name means “the very near future” reflecting its players’ hopes of earning a brighter future – and in doing so giving their very poor club the income it needs to survive.
The 27 professionals all earn the minimum wage to play in the third division of the Rio de Janeiro state championship, the Campeonato Carioca, in front of a handful of spectators. But the players are only paid when the club has sponsors, which is rare.
Going into this season, they had not won a league match for four years.
For Genilso, Friday May 30 began just after 6 a.m. in the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his mother, brother, two nephews and a family friend.
Swaggering down the street to the bus stop wearing an ostentatious silver chain, he was joined by his nephew Lucca Ociucira, 14, who wants to be a footballer.
Three buses, 16 miles and plenty of good humor later, he arrived at the field in Sepetiba, on the outskirts of Rio, where Futuro Bem Próximo train. The parched pitch has red and white striped goalposts and blue nets that match the colors of the club.
The heart of the club is Élton Bispo da Silva, 48 — president, coach and administrator. He takes pride in shielding his mainly young players from a ruthless business but faces a struggle to raise the 5,000 reals ($2,225) needed to host each home match.
Before training, he joins hands with the players to recite a Hail Mary prayer. They train six days a week, including holidays, and play matches on Sundays. They train all year round despite only having 10 guaranteed professional matches each year.
As they play, the ball bounces awkwardly on the uneven pitch while substitutes shelter under fig trees. On a hot day there is no doubting the exertion of the players.
“The club offers us the opportunity to play, to showcase ourselves,” said Genilso. “It takes players who have been cheated before and gives them another chance.
“My hope is for us to do well this season and then to sign a good contract with a bigger club later this year. I’ve been working on my game for a long time now. I think I can still get a good contract. And if I do, it’ll help the club too as they’ll get a fee.”
That is the hope for Bispo, who founded the club in 2000. In the early days they unearthed several stars — including Bruno Cortês, who went on to play for Brazil — but since turning professional in 2004 they have not, meaning they have not yet profited.
“This year we hope to sell our first player,” he said. “We have a few good bets, including Bernardo, a young striker who has scored three times this season already.”
Every outlay — hiring a bus or paying a referee — is a struggle. The club does not own its own stadium or charge entry, so all money comes from sponsors or sympathizers.
After training, Genilso takes another long bus journey to the bustling center of another poor suburb in Rio’s west zone, Campo Grande. There, in a small stall in a covered market, he makes and sells perfumes to make ends meet.
Normally, he leaves work at 8 p.m. and arrives home at 10:30 p.m. — and washes his only training kit for the next day and dries it behind a refrigerator. He usually makes it to bed by 1 a.m. “In truth I need more sleep,” he said.
Born in a small town near the Argentine border to a farmer and a maid, Genilso’s dream was to play for the team he supported, Vasco da Gama, the underdog of the four major clubs in Rio de Janeiro. When behind their fans chant: Vasco is the team of the comeback, Vasco is the team of love. “For me, it was always Vasco,” he said.
His childhood hero was Edmundo, a tempestuous striker who joined the club as a boy and scored 29 times in their Brazilian championship win in 1997. Six months later and the 15-year-old Genilso earned a trial. Without cash to pay for the 860-mile journey, he hitched a lift on a bus bringing contraband goods to Brazil from Paraguay.
The trial was successful and Vasco became his first club, lodging with a family friend. A few weeks later Edmundo played in the World Cup final and the next month Vasco won the Libertadores, the greatest prize in South American football, for the first time in their 100-year history. Two months after that, Genilso was released.
He then joined Flamengo, the largest club in Rio, but that only lasted six months. “After I could not find a club,” he said. “I was disorientated and alone in the city. There were many agents who tried to trick me. I went to São Paulo on the promise of playing for [the largest club] Corinthians but then the agent disappeared.”
His experience echoes that of many young players who are easy prey to unscrupulous agents who rarely live up to their promises, leaving the players broke and clubless.
Later in his career he would travel to the northeastern state of Bahia for the promise of a R$2,500 ($1,100) monthly salary that never appeared. Afterwards, when offered €9,000-a-month by an agent to play in France, he declined to buy his own ticket.
The moment, at age 22, when he finally earned his first professional contract, with Nilópolis, a small club in Rio de Janeiro, remains the best of his career.
After playing for clubs in Rio and his home state of Paraná, he was tempted to the distant western state of Mato Grosso by the lure of televised matches. But, after being paid only three times in nine months, he abandoned the club to return to Rio.
“After buying my bus ticket, I only had seven reals ($3) left in the world,” he said. To survive the 36-hour journey he bought cheap biscuits and juice before boarding.
Under pressure from his wife, and with a daughter who is now eight, he abandoned football in 2009. “I resolved to return when we separated,” he said. “I like to play in Rio as it has the highest visibility. Many agents are looking for players here.”
Now he has a new girlfriend, Leny Bellini, 34. “She was the most important person in my return to football,” he said. “I have her full support. Even though I am 30 she always says it is going to work for me. When I am broke, she helps me with money.
“That is important as when a player has a lot of money, there are always people nearby,” he said. “When you play in a small team you have no friends. But I know I’ll win. I will sign a big contract. It’s been too much suffering to end in nothing.”
The football pitch in the village of Pau Grande sits amid the bare peaks and carpeted valleys of the Range of the Organs mountains, 30 miles from Rio de Janeiro. It was here that the player many consider the greatest in Brazilian history, Mané Garrincha, started the career that would lead to World Cup wins in 1958 and 1962.
On Sunday, as the sun reflected off the cracked whitewashed walls of the humble Estadio Mané Garrincha, Futuro Bem Próximo took on Condor-Atlético Magé. In the small changing room, the team huddled and shouted, with anger: “Win, win, win!”
On this day, they did.
First, Bernardo flicked in a header from a corner. One nil. Then young midfielder Felipe Santos curled an excellent free kick off the left-hand post and in. Two nil.
As the sun nudged behind the mountains, Genilso — who had been nursing a thigh injury — was introduced as a substitute. An explosive playmaker, he soon had the ball in the net after a jinking run, but it was ruled out.
Then Condor started to threaten. After one defensive mix-up, the whole Futuro Bem Próximo team and bench exploded in recriminations at their profligacy.
But just as their opponents were looking threatening, midfielder Jonathan went on a dangerous run and was brought down for a clear penalty. But in the second before referee could blow his whistle, Genilso lashed the ball into the net. Three nil.
He raised a finger to the sky and closed his eyes.
The result, together with the previous week’s comeback victory over Heliópolis, were Futuro Bem Próximo’s first wins in the Campeonato Carioca since March 2010. Their testosterone-fueled celebrations showed as much, shouting and dancing wildly.
The success gives them a real chance of qualifying for the second stage of the competition for the first time in six years, and in doing so give Genilso the platform he craves. But to do that they must continue their form in the coming weeks.
If they do, the first match of the second phase will be held on July 13. At exactly the same time that Sunday, a world away at the Maracanã stadium in central Rio, Brazil might be bidding to win their sixth title in the World Cup final.
If the match is not postponed in a wave of patriotic fervor, would he play? “If there is a match then I will play, because my career comes before my country,” he said. “If Brazil are champions it doesn’t mean I win anything, besides a little happiness.”
(Photography by Meeri Koutaniemi)