Brazil's Vinicius uses football to stimulate young Brazilian minds

Vinicius Junior of Real Madrid runs with the ball during the LaLiga EA Sports match between Real Madrid CF and Celta de Vigo at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 10, 2024 in Madrid, Spain.

Perched on football-patterned cushions on classroom floors of artificial grass, they learn on tablets and smartphones using an app created by the Vini Jr Institute, started by the Real Madrid athlete to improve public education in disadvantaged communities.

"I learn better when I use the app, it's easier, it looks like a game," 11-year-old Ana Clara da Silva told AFP in Sao Goncalo, Vinicius's birthplace on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

Da Silva attends the Visconde de Sepetiba municipal school, one of ten in four Brazilian states to have received educational aid from the institute.

Some 4,500 students and 500 teachers have benefited from the project, launched in 2021. By the end of this year, it hopes to have reached 30 schools.

With no intention to replace human teachers, the app was designed as an aid.

Each pupil has a personal account, where their progress is logged as they answer questions presented in a playful, football-inspired way on subjects including mathematics, Portuguese or science.

In typical gaming format, each school year is presented as a "season" and each subject as a "match," while the avatar "Vinizinho Jr" celebrates each correct answer as if it were a goal.

'The power of football'
"We use the power of football, its playful character" to inspire the kids to learn, the Vini Jr Institute's executive manager Victor Oliveira told AFP.

"Everything we learn, we put into practice on the app. It helps us learn because we are connected to our phones, but not disconnected from our studies," said 11-year-old Yuri Rodrigues.

The institute, initially funded exclusively by Vinicius but now counting other sponsors, also aims to tackle the scourge of racism in a country where more than half the population is black or of mixed race.

It has launched an anti-racism training manual and has provided instruction on the subject to about 80 teachers in the past year.

It is a subject dear to the Brazilian attacker, who has himself suffered several incidents of discrimination in Spain.

"He is very important to all of us," said 11-year-old Ana Clara.

"I'm glad he never gives up. And because his voice reaches a wide audience, he can fight for us," she said.

In October, Vinicius received the Socrates Prize for charitable work at the Ballon d'Or annual football awards.

And last month, the 23-year-old was appointed UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, only the second Brazilian footballer to receive the honor after Pele.

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