A crime-ridden Brazilian town pays tribute to local boy Vinicius Jr.

SAO GONCALO, Brazil (AP) — Four years ago and still a teenager, Vinicius Jr. earned his first winner’s medal in his hometown outside of Rio de Janeiro, a place where drug gangs and vigilantes fight for control and children play football in the streets next to piles of garbage.

Now, with the 22-year-old Real Madrid winger a key figure in Brazil’s national team heading into the World Cup, his former neighbors Sao Gonçalo will soon be hoping to receive another visit of the once silent boy who, despite the danger, used to play football next to a highway. They want to parade him around town with a World Cup winner’s medal around his neck so that his friends, his former academy teammates and the few relatives left can see it.

“Look at the house where he lived,” said neighbor Paulo Roberto. “We can’t say it’s a door, it’s all improvised pieces of wood around a frame. If you ring the bell, no one will answer because everyone here lives in fear. If you don’t know who the knocker is, stay silent. Vini has always stayed out of trouble, which not all the kids here can do.

Roberto’s tiny house, with many missing roof tiles and worn pink paint on the exterior walls, is in the Porto do Rosa neighborhood where Vinicius lived until he was 14. The area is currently in a standoff between drug traffickers and vigilantes, with frequent shootings preventing children from playing football in the streets.

“Everyone was afraid of violence, but the children didn’t care, they wanted to play all the time. If there was too much dirt on that street, Vinicius and the others would take a shovel, clean it and play,” said Roberto, 55. “We could see from the start that Vinicius was really motivated to be a football player.”

Another place where Vinicius dribbled his childhood in Sao Gonçalo is the public school he attended. A room in the Paulo Freire municipal school hosts an educational project sponsored by the winger so that students learn to use new technological tools.

His former teacher, Ana Cristina Pereira dos Santos, was emotional after she and around 20 students gathered to watch the kid she knew as Vini be called up to play at the upcoming World Cup.

“He brings hope to all these children. Many of them dream of becoming footballers, it’s no surprise. But others just want to study and live proudly here. And Vini makes them proud here,” dos Santos, 56, told The Associated Press as other students chanted Vinicius’ name.

“Vini was really calm with the other students. He talked a little more to the teachers. He loved football from the start, he skipped a few lessons to play. But he knew how to be gentle, he was careful in class. He never caused me any problems.

Vinicius’ rise started at the local football school where his father took him when he was 6 years old. Owner Carlos Eduardo Abrantes Beraldini welcomed an easy-going kid who dribbled past all his opponents until he scored. Four years later, Beraldini took that same kid to develop at his Flamengo boyhood club in Rio.

“He caught our attention from the start. We started playing him against older kids, and he continued to stand out,” Beraldini, 51, said in his office, where the walls are covered in shirts autographed by Vinicius Jr. “He thinks fast, he is fast, he can score as he sees fit. He made us laugh. No one knew how to stop him. On the pitch, he was unstoppable. Outside it was calm.

“Vinicius has always enjoyed training. He likes the football environment. When we played Sao Gonçalo, the other kids usually did what they had to do and then went off to do something else. Not Vinicius. He just stayed and watched the other teams play too,” Beraldini said. “At the age of 10, you could see that he was going to turn professional. He worked hard. Sao Gonçalo was too small for him.

Valeria Beraldini, who also works at the school, is grateful to Vinicius for coming back whenever he has time, showing others the medals he has won.

Vinicius is yet to win his Champions League medal, which he won after scoring Real Madrid’s only goal against Liverpool in the last final. But Valeria Beraldini hopes he does at the end of the year, possibly with a World Cup medal.

“He comes from a tough part of town and with a lot of talent and hard work he is now one of the best in the world,” she said. “Vinicius is the kind of guy who came here out of the blue to surprise the kids, show off the medals and trophies he had just won in Flamengo or in the Brazil academy teams. He’s a star, but he doesn’t act like a star.

Nine-year-old Rayan Alves, one of Paulo Freire’s municipal school students, plays football whenever he can, loves to dribble and stresses he wants to look more like Vinicius than Neymar – a rare trait for a Brazilian child.

“I know where Vinicius was playing here. And I played on his street once, the ball almost fell on the highway,” Rayan said as he held up a plastic Brazilian flag. “If he could do it, maybe I can do it too.”

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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