Playing football is a rewarding profession in Brazil, but being a player’s mother is now a hazardous occupation thanks to a spate of kidnappings, writes Ben Collins

The practice of kidnapping footballers and/or their family members for ransom has been rife in Argentina in recent years, while Levan Kaladze, brother of AC Milan’s Georgia defender Kakha, is still missing almost four years after his abduction. Now the trend has taken hold in Brazil, too.

Kidnapping is nothing new to the country, with 83 cases occurring between January and September of 2004 in São Paulo alone, but the activity rose to public attention when, last November, the mother of Santos star Robinho, Brazil’s brightest young talent, was taken hostage. Two men, one armed with a gun, burst into a family barbecue in Praia Grande on the São Paulo coast and left with their target after locking the other guests in an upstairs bedroom.

She was returned unharmed 40 days later, with reports claiming a payment of more than £40,000 had been paid, but cases now occur with alarming regularity. In February the mother of São Paulo striker Grafite was abducted near the city, although police found her unharmed a day later and no ransom was paid. Then, in March, Porto striker Luis Fabiano’s mother was taken by two gunmen from her home in Campinas, 60 miles northwest of São Paulo, and just ten days later the mother of Sporting Lisbon midfielder Rogerio suffered the same fate.

It is no coincidence that all these cases occurred in the São Paulo region, where a third of the 18 million inhabitants live in favelas (slums) and the problem generally is most common. A recent police study showed that 24 kidnapping offences had been recorded in the city so far this year, with a number of children being snatched at school gates, sparking a boom in the sale of tracking devices, such as microchips hidden in clothing or even under the skin.

The most frequent victims have been the families of wealthy businessmen, yet footballers have become recognised as more accessible targets. They are in the public eye so their salaries are often common knowledge and most come from poor neighbourhoods, where their families remain and are known to the community. It had been thought that only home-based players were targeted as they could be easily contacted for ransom negotiations, yet the cases in March involved Europe-based players.

Unemployment, industrial output and the economy have actually improved during the two years in which President “Lula” (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) has been in office. Yet with an astonishing 60 per cent of Brazil’s national wealth possessed by one per cent of the population and only eight per cent of government social spending reaching the most underprivileged, more and more people turn to crime.

Police believe that those targeting footballers are part of a sophisticated extortion ring and that the two latest cases involved the same group. They have tried to curb the kidnappings by asking clubs to avoid publishing contractual details and ensuring that details of their investigations are not released by the press, yet they claim that the vast majority of kidnapping cases feature some involvement by a member of the victim’s family, usually providing information.

Whether the police can catch the culprits is open to question – their record of solving crimes is a little over ten per cent – although another case has come to a happy conclusion with Rogerio’s mother found unharmed three days after her abduction.

If playing performances are a yardstick, Robinho and Grafite appear to have recovered from their ordeals, but, with his mother still to be released, Luis Fabiano’s disappointing form since his summer move to Portugal is the least of his concerns.

From WSC 219 May 2005. What was happening this month

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