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Brazil's soccer star Vinícius Júnior wants to give back to schools in his hometown

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 28: Player of Brazil Vinícius Júnior celebrates after scoring a disallowed goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 group G match between Brazil and Switzerland at Stadium 974 on November 28, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Florencia Tan Jun/PxImages/Icon Sportwire)
DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 28: Player of Brazil Vinícius Júnior celebrates after scoring a disallowed goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 group G match between Brazil and Switzerland at Stadium 974 on November 28, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Florencia Tan Jun/PxImages/Icon Sportwire)
https://ondemand.npr.org/anon.npr-mp3/npr/me/2022/12/20221205_me_its_vincius_jniors_time_to_shine_as_brazil_faces_korea_at_the_world_cup.mp3?orgId=1&topicId=1004&aggIds=1134840606&d=238&story=1140830605&ft=nprml&f=1001

SÃO GONÇALO, Brazil — Children at the small, crowded and chaotic elementary school where Brazilian soccer star Vinícius de Oliveira Júnior attended think he's a hero.

During recess, as half a dozen boys in their two-toned blue uniforms play a rapid-fire game of foosball, each shouts out the name of a national soccer team player every time someone scores.

Vinícius or "Vini" Júnior, as he's widely known, is the clear favorite for 11-year-old Breno Cunha da Silva. "He worked to get where he got and he went to school here," blurts da Silva between shots.

The 22-year-old forward for Brazil, and for Spanish club Real Madrid, has dazzled spectators at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, scoring an opening goal against South Korea on Monday. Fans are hoping he'll keep it up as Brazil faces Croatia on Friday.

He launched an educational app

Vinícius Júnior grew up in São Gonçalo, a rough urban sprawl across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. Soccer got him out — and he's hoping his new charity helps the people still living here.

He had a team design a learning app that uses soccer terms to drive home basic skills. His nonprofit, the Vini Jr. Institute, donated 10 new cellphones with the app to his old elementary school.

His fifth-grade teacher, Ana Cristina Pereira dos Santos, says students have to overcome a lot to succeed. "So many kids get caught up in crime and drugs here, it's tough," she says.

Dos Santos remembers Vinícius Júnior as a polite, always-smiling kid, happy and anxious to get out and play.

He has said school was boring for him — he wants to make it fun.

"The institute helps me get closer to the people who helped me back there when I was 16, 15 years old, and repay the affection they all have for me," the soccer star says in a video the charity made about its work.

Teachers use the app, called BASE, in a quiet classroom with freshly painted walls and floor-to-ceiling posters of Vinícius Júnior.

During NPR's recent visit to the school, though, the teachers were not using the app. They had just returned to work from a more than 30-day strike and said they had to focus instead on catching up. Also, like many days in the area, the internet was down.

Soccer players didn't always have institutes named after them

Starting charities is relatively new for Brazil's soccer stars. That's "mostly because big money is very recent in football," says Marcos Uchôa, a longtime correspondent for Brazilian outlet Globo TV. "So, because Brazilian players were poor, most of the money would go to help their families and their futures," instead of into philanthropy.

But Uchôa says Vinícius Júnior is earning very well in Europe, and playing better than ever too.

In May, he scored the winning goal in the Champions League final, giving Real Madrid its record 14th club victory.

But some fans focused more on Vinícius Júnior'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." The agent later apologized.

In a video message on Twitter, Vinícius Júnior responded with calm maturity, remarkable for a rich athlete of his age. "They say happiness can bother some," he said smiling wryly into the camera. "The happiness of a Black Brazilian victorious in Europe probably bothers more."

But he insists that he has no plans to stop dancing.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.