April 24, 2019

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Dorm Fire Kills 10 Young Players in Brazil, Sending Shudder Through Soccer World

Dorm Fire Kills 10 Young Players in Brazil, Sending Shudder Through Soccer World
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RIO DE JANEIRO — Fire consumed a dormitory early Friday at a Brazilian training center for teenage soccer players run by one of South America’s most prominent teams, killing at least 10 in a disaster that reverberated through the soccer world and beyond.

The fire in the dormitory, which may have been constructed improperly on what was intended to be a parking lot, was the latest in a string of seemingly preventable tragedies that have convulsed Brazil over the past two weeks.

It struck the training center of the Flamengo club in Rio de Janeiro, breaking out in the early morning when many youth players, ages 14 to 17, were asleep. Three others were injured, one seriously, and were taken to a hospital.

Officials would not confirm the identities of the dead. But Globoesporte, a Brazilian sports news website, said all were players. The dorm housed 26 players and 13 escaped unharmed, the website said.

“The location was completely consumed in flames,” Douglas Henaut, a lieutenant with firefighters, told journalists at the scene. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to rescue anyone inside. As much as we tried to enter and locate the victims, it wasn’t possible. The bodies were found totally charred.”

Flamengo is one of Brazil’s most popular soccer clubs and is considered a symbol of the country’s global dominance in the training and development of young athletes who aspire to join professional soccer.

Some of Brazil’s biggest stars have played with Flamengo, among them Romário, Ronaldinho and Zico, who represented the country in World Cups, and many others who have played for high-profile teams abroad.

The club’s training center, known as Ninho do Urubu, or Vulture’s Nest, in the western part of the city, had recently undergone renovations. Rio officials confirmed local news reports that the dormitory had been erected in what was supposed to be a parking lot, with no permits for construction, and was going to be torn down after the occupants moved into a new dorm.

“The fire was in my room,” Felipe Cardoso, 15, who plays for the Flamengo youth team, wrote on Twitter. “I have only God to thank for managing to wake up and escape death, may God comfort my brothers.”

For players accepted to the youth team, it was the Brazilian equivalent of joining the Dallas Cowboys. A video posted by a team member who was away when the fire erupted showed their exuberant camaraderie in the dorm.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who is hospitalized after intestinal surgery, posted a condolence message on social media: “This morning we were made aware of the sad tragedy in the Flamengo training center, taking the young lives of those who were beginning the path toward the realization of their professional dreams.”

Firefighters said they were alerted to the blaze at 5:17 a.m. local time, and Rio de Janeiro prosecutors said they had created a task force to investigate the cause.

The fire comes two weeks after a dam broke in the most lethal mining disaster in Brazil’s history, and just two days after a powerful summer storm in Rio de Janeiro set off flooding and mudslides, killing six.

The disasters have shocked and saddened Brazilians and have highlighted the country’s shoddy infrastructure and poor emergency response.

“We are seeing a succession of avoidable, preventable facts and disasters, and we must pay attention to them so that the institutions of control, enforcement and punishment really work in Brazil,” the country’s prosecutor general, Raquel Dodge, said in Brasília, the capital, after news of the fire spread.

The blaze also focused attention on living conditions for young Brazilian soccer players, many of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds and live in dormitories like Flamengo’s across the vast country.

“It’s hard to imagine what Flamengo means for these boys,” said Juca Kfouri, a Brazilian sports columnist and author. “In Brazil, there are only two legal paths to social improvement for them: entertainment and soccer. Otherwise it’s a life of crime.”

Mr. Kfouri said he was not familiar with the dormitory at the Flamengo training ground, but he said that living conditions at soccer clubs in Brazil historically were atrocious — including a case in which boys were housed in one dormitory built underneath the stands and another infested with rats.

“Training at Flamengo is realizing your life’s goal,” Mr. Kfouri said. “But now it’s a dream turned into a nightmare.”

He added that the death toll in the fire was most likely lower than it could have been because training had been suspended after the widespread flooding in Rio, and some boys had gone home.

Zico, one of Brazil’s soccer legends, sent reporters a video lamenting the tragedy. He said he had met some of the boys who died in the fire. “We ended up getting close to them,” he said. “Boys with dreams, goals, a lot of them trying to help their families.”

Rival clubs expressed sympathy on social media. The messages included one from Chapecoense, which suffered its own tragedy just over two years ago when a plane carrying team members to an international competition ran out of fuel and crashed, killing nearly all of the 77 people on board.

One of soccer’s most recent breakout stars, the Real Madrid forward Vinícius Júnior, who was developed in Flamengo’s youth ranks and lived at the academy, took to Twitter to express his horror at the fire. He wrote that he was in shock and called for prayers.

While Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, is known for its exports of meat, metal and coffee, nothing garners as much attention as the soccer players it dispatches at a rate unmatched anywhere.

Brazilian players form the backbone of soccer’s $7 billion player trading industry. Last year alone 832 players left on overseas adventures, according to data provided by soccer’s global governing body, FIFA.

While a few, like the star forward Neymar, will make it to the biggest stages of the game, most are soccer’s workhorses, providing a Brazilian touch to professional teams from East Timor to the Faroe Islands looking to fill their rosters with reliable, well-coached and relatively inexpensive talent.

Back home in Brazil, rampant inequality and a lack of other opportunities mean, the supply of young, gifted soccer players looking for a way out of grinding poverty is almost limitless.

Flamengo’s newly renovated facility opened late last year, at a cost of about $6 million, and was part of a complete overhaul of the club’s youth development system.

Besides five training fields, a swimming pool and gym facilities, the complex was to contain accommodations for 48 players to live on site: 36 single bedrooms, and six doubles.

Occupants of the dorm that burned had been scheduled to move into a new building next month, according to local news media reports.

Flamengo also had engaged Double Pass, a Belgian consulting firm that specializes in soccer youth development, to modernize the way it trained players.

Alexandre Wrobel, a vice president at the club, has been quoted by Brazilian media as saying the youth training facility it would be among the top five in soccer.

Such modern surroundings remain comparatively rare in South America, where many clubs cannot call on the lucrative television deals and sponsorship arrangements that bankroll teams in Europe.





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