A year in Brazil, coaching football, during the World Cup? Not many football fans would say no. And for two football fanatics from Tyneside, the dream is soon to become a reality. Craig Robson,23, and Michael Gardner, 20, have until January before they jet off to the Samba nation and embark on a mammoth charity project, that will seem them living in a small town outside of Rio De Janeiro, Curitiba.
The Tyneside pair’s passion for football has already seen them ply their trade coaching in schools throughout Poland during last year’s European Championships and it will fuel their Brazilian adventure, as they look to set up a lasting football legacy in Curitiba. “Football is brilliant and if we can use that and educate them in English, it will be a lasting benefit for them as opposed to having just six weeks of football,” explains Robson. The duo first met last year when volunteering for North East based charity LionsRaw and enjoyed their time in Warsaw so much that they signed up for Brazil 2014 before arriving back in Newcastle.
“We watched the games at night, while we worked in a youth detention centre during the day,” explains Robson. “The language was a bit of a barrier, a lot of it was laughing and hand gestures but it helped develop us as coaches. Being in the atmosphere of a host city was just different class.”
Currently juggling work commitments with fundraising activities, which have seen them take on Ben Nevis along with sealing places in September’s Great North Run on their way to their £10,000 target, Robson and Gardner will spend twelve months in Curitiba teaching football and English in local schools. The projects set up by the pair, funded by Lionsraw, will help prevent children in the region from becoming involved in street crime and drugs, which are rife throughout the country.
“We have an idea of what some of the problems are, but once we get there we can see what we have to do. Hopefully the benefits are massive, not just for us but for the people over there,” adds Robson. LionsRaw’s philosophy of sustainable charity projects in host cities has had them establish strong participation numbers and turned heads along the way. “By the 2020 Euros, Lionsraw are hoping to have charity events across the world, affecting 20 million people,” Gardner explains. “To be a part of something this big is quite something.”
Taking the meaning of a gap year to a new level, Gardner and Robson will be away from their families, loved ones and most importantly of all, their beloved Newcastle United. “It is pretty daunting moving there for a year, being away from home that long. As two big Newcastle fans it’ll be hard to be totally detached from it all. Hopefully we can take some Newcastle kits over,” Robson said.
The memories gained from their time in Poland were enough for the pair to jump at the chance of taking on what Brazil has to offer. And with the tales they’ve got to tell, it’s no surprise they’re biting at the bit to get started.
“The Euros were crazy,” explains Gardner. “You’d see Roman Ambromvich walking around with his bodyguard. We were in the same Irish bar as Roy Keane and Patrick Viera, met Adrian Chiles in a coffee shop, it was just so weird.
“On the night of the flash floods, we’d given Adrian Chiles the mobile number for the tour organiser and they were ringing us to see if they could film us to fill in for the delay of the match and interview the team.”
“We were coaching in a school at the time so couldn’t do it. I think they replaced us with a guy playing a trumpet in a Polish town square,” said Robson.
The boys’ popularity was not solely limited to press interest; they also acquired a cult following from local school children after delivering a session. “We saw some of the kids out and they followed us thinking we were famous, as we tried to look for a cash point. We had the same coaching tops on so it would have looked like we were in a team.
“Roy Keane was standing on the other side of the path with nobody approaching him. We just signed some stuff because we couldn’t explain who we were in a foreign language,” said Robson.
Coaching in Curitiba
Think Brazil and you automatically think of football. It’s fair to say the two go hand in hand. With five World Cup titles under their belt and the most talked about football prospects stepping of a production line every season, Brazil is a titan in the beautiful game. With twelve months to soak in what Brazil has to offer, the Tyneside coaches are looking to dive straight into the deep end and submerge themselves in the country’s renowned way of life.
“We’re going to get stuck in there and immersed in the culture. One of the things we want to do is get involved in playing for local teams, play some futsal and make some friends,” explains an excited Gardner. “Curitiba is quite a multi-social city, there are loads of different cultures.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing the beaches down there. Rio will be excellent, especially with the atmosphere. You never know what these things might lead to. It’s important for us to explore as we won’t have this experience again,” adds Robson.
However it’s not all about the sun, sea and sport. The pair are faced with a very different challenge to coaching back home in Newcastle. The excitement around the World Cup along with the 2016 Olympics in Rio has tried its best to mask crime in the Brazil, but there is no escaping the hard hitting crime stats. Organised crime is prevalent throughout Curitiba’s neighbouring city, Sao Paulo and Rio. Around 1130 people, citizens and police authorities were killed as a cause of organised and gang crimes. Making scary reading for the volunteers of Project Curitiba, showing just what they’re up against in Brazil.
“Kevin (of LionsRaw) was saying that there is a drug dealer who brings his son to the soccer school, he takes him there so he doesn’t turn out like him, he turns up with two guns in a holster,” says a stunned Gardner. Concerns surrounding the country’s crime were raised when the country was hosted the tournament, and there is no doubting Robson and Gardner will witness it during their year in the Samba nation.
“There was something in the news the other day saying that Brazil has more cocaine use than America, showing the scale of the things we’re up against,” Robson informs us. Crime worries aside, the pair will be kept occupied with the responsibility of setting up and running the schemes organised by LionsRaw. With experience from their coaching jobs back in Newcastle, working for Sport North Tyneside and the Hattrick Project, respectively, Robson and Gardner will undertake a mammoth operation, in an a country they’ve never visited, with the accountability of other volunteers working on the project. No pressure then.
“The thing that will drive us on is the fact we need all the work schemes set up ready for when the rest of the volunteers arrive. In a way, I see us as being coordinators because it’ll almost be a case of people management. They might have the same doubts and anxieties that we had when we arrived in January and we’ve got to help them manage that. It’ll take us a while to get used to everything, but once we do then we can help the new volunteers settle in,” states Robson.
For these two football mad volunteers, you’d have a hard task finding a better environment than a stone’s throw away from Rio. “The atmosphere will peak during the two weeks of the World Cup, for us having more volunteers will obviously help, but if Brazil won the atmosphere would carry on throughout the year and be truly amazing,” said Robson. “But if England won then we’ll just carry on the party,” adds Gardner.
Whether it’s a successful summer for Roy’s men or not there’ll certainly be two Englishmen returning from Brazil with a smile on their face. “I’ve always thought sport is one of the best tools, especially in cities like Newcastle that are immersed in football, to combat problems and get people together and have fun. Kids these days are too quick to jump in the house and have a game on FIFA. I’d much rather be out playing,” says Gardner. And we couldn’t agree more, as we sit safe in the knowledge that Craig and Michael will return with unbelievable stories, showing Brazil exactly what Newcastle has to offer.
For more information on the project, along with keeping up to date with
the pairs fundraising follow @ProjectCuritiba