By Doug Gray, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Joe Jennings is something of an anomaly in Rio’s football culture. In a country boasting more professional footballers than anywhere in the world, thousands pursue the golden egg of football leagues as far afield as Europe, Japan and increasingly the Middle East.
The emphasis on playing for national teams makes it all the more unusual to find a young Brit trying out in the lower leagues of Rio State Football. Previously an amateur footballer in the UK and Spain, a love for Rio brought him to these shores. With a film crew behind him, Joe’s story of breaking into Brazilian football is being made into a documentary.
At nineteen, Joe was playing for Harlow Town in Essex. Beset by injuries, a two year hiatus eventually saw Joe head to Spain. There he hoped to play for second division outfit Sao Pedro, a team he had trained with. There was unfortunately no room for him in the squad and he was denied a trial.
Spurred on by the setback, last year Joe began making inquiries with clubs in Rio. Posing as his own agent, Joe finally got through to the recruitment team at São Cristóvão. The Second Division outfit in the Rio State League offered Joe a trial.
It was then that he met up with a documentary filmmaker keen to follow the story. Much to their surprise, the following weeks threw up some high drama and, ultimately, success.
Unbeknownst to Joe, he started training with their sprightly under-twenty division. Jammed into an unfamiliar 4-2-2-2 midfield formation, it was hard to adapt. “When I turned up for training one day, I found the gates closed and I figured that was it, I hadn’t made it,” he says. “But I stuck around, and when one of the other coaches turned up he let me in – turned out it was the first team trial and I’d been playing with the youth team!”
Surrounded by players closer to his own age, Joe fit in well. He seized the chance to play up front, scoring in practice two days running. Up against forty other hopefuls, after a few days the number was down to twenty, and Joe was still in. When the trials came to an end and that number became four, Joe realized he had made it.
“It was an amazing experience really,” he says, “the atmosphere at the trials was so friendly. There wasn’t the rivalry you might expect; everyone was wishing each other good luck.”
Playing alongside the most skillful footballers of his life, Joe has clearly raised his game. He follows a fitness and training regime which can be up to eight hours a day. First team regulars receive the minimum wage, but nevertheless earn a living from football, a dream for so many.
Joe deliberately avoided asking for a contract to help his cause at the trials, and now begins the long road to breaking into the first team. The season starts in mid-July against the likes of América, of whom Romario is now President.
One of six strikers, Joe knows it won’t be easy. São Cristóvão are not without their legends though, and World Player Of The Year Ronaldo ‘Fenomeno’ graced the very same pitch when he was a youth player.
Joe hopes the footage shot during the trials can be made into a film alongside the recent success of films such as ‘In The Hands Of The Gods’, a 2007 documentary following British street footballers traveling the world to meet Maradona.