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It's Vinícius Júnior's time to shine as Brazil faces Korea at the World Cup

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Brazil has been doing quite well in this World Cup. Their next challenge comes against South Korea this afternoon. But they've been playing without their star forward, Neymar, who's been sidelined for the past two games with an injury. That has let others on the team shine, like the young forward Vinicius Junior, who's recently been tackling racism in Europe and poverty back home. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Recess at this crowded public school in Sao Goncalo, Brazil, can best be described as controlled chaos.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING, CELEBRATING)

KAHN: Half a dozen boys in two-tone blue uniforms huddle around this rapid-fire foosball game. As each goal is scored, they scream out the name of their favorite Brazilian player.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: For 11-year-old Breno Cunha da Silva, it's the 22-year-old Brazilian national team forward, Vinicius de Oliveira Junior. At age 18, Vinicius Junior, as he's called here, was signed by Real Madrid, the world's most successful soccer club.

BRENO CUNHA DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "He worked to get where he got, and he went to school here," shouts da Silva between shots. Vinicius Junior grew up in this rough urban sprawl across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. Soccer got him out. He's hoping his new charity helps those still here.

ANA CRISTINA PEREIRA DOS SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "So many kids get caught up in crime and drugs here," says Ana Cristina Pereira dos Santos. She was Vinicius Junior's fifth-grade teacher. He's remembered as a polite, always-smiling kid, happy and anxious to get out and play. Vinicius Junior has said school was boring for him. He wants to make it fun.

UBIARA DE SANTANA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: First-grade teacher Ubiara de Santana shows off 10 new cellphones with a learning app developed by Vinicius Junior's team. Teachers use the interactive games, all with soccer references, in this quiet classroom lined with huge posters of the soccer star.

It's a goal when you get it right.

DE SANTANA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: When it's right.

It helps them build skills, though it's not being used today. Teachers have recently returned from a 30-day strike and instead are catching up. Besides, the internet is down. Not uncommon here.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

KAHN: Starting charities is a relatively new thing for Brazil's soccer star, says Marcos Uchoa, a longtime correspondent for Globo TV.

MARCOS UCHOA: Mostly because the big, big, big money is very recent in football. So because Brazilian players were poor, most of them would use the money to help the family and their futures.

KAHN: Uchoa says Vinicius Junior is earning well in Europe, even though he had a slow start. That was until last season.

UCHOA: Vinicius started to score. He evened the score in the final of the Champions League.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Goal.

KAHN: That goal gave Real Madrid the Champions League title, Europe's highest club prize, for a record 14th time. But some fans focused more on Vinicius Junior's celebratory dancing. They taunted him with racial slurs, even throwing objects at him. A Spanish agent said on TV he should stop monkeying around. In a recorded tweet, Vinicius Junior shot back with a calm maturity remarkable for a 22-year-old rich athlete.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VINICIUS OLIVEIRA JUNIOR: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "They say happiness can bother some," smiling wryly into the camera, he says. "The happiness of a Black Brazilian victorious in Europe probably bothers more. But I won't stop dancing," he says.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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