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The Globe and Mail

From Vancouver to Brazil: World Cup Bus on charity mission

The World Cup Bus drove 19,000 kilometres form Vancouver to Brazil, reaching its final home at a small soccer school.

Tom Henriksen

When the children started showing up at Marco Aurelio de Oliveira's soccer school in the small community of Major Vieira, a 12-hour drive from Sao Paulo, the lucky ones arrived wearing gum boots or sandals. The unlucky ones had no shoes at all.

Mr. de Oliveira and his wife had intended Escolinha de Futebol Bola Brasil to be a private training camp and that children would bring whatever they needed. But kids who could not afford the equipment wanted to play too.

So, at a time when the entire country was in the grip of its World Cup hosting duties, the pair converted their plan to a non-profit and headed off to Sao Paulo in search of funding, more equipment and proper gear for the children. They ended up racing through the enormous city's downtown traffic on a motorcycle in hot pursuit of a well-traveled yellow school bus from Vancouver.

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The World Cup Bus, so dubbed by its crew of 15 soccer enthusiasts from more than 14 countries, had set out from Vancouver in April. The goal was to arrive in Brazil in time for the World Cup, making a few stops along the way. At the end of the trip, the group wanted to leave the bus to a charity in Brazil, perhaps one that was soccer-related.

"The idea was always to do a really big adventure for this World Cup," Tom Henriksen, one of the founders of the bus project, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. Mr. Henriksen, a native of Britain, has been living in Vancouver, where he moved to play rugby.

"It's the biggest and best World Cup there's going to be in our lifetime, so it's not how far we've got to go, it was just to make it the best that we possibly could."

As the bus made its way through 16 countries across two continents and 19,000 kilometres, so too did word of its progress. Everywhere it went, local media came for interviews, and citizens ventured out for a peek at the yellow bus with its curious licence plates and crew from a country they knew little about.

"Most people thought we were actually from Colombia," Mr. Henriksen chuckled. "The difference between that and British Columbia was a hard one to explain. But people just warmed up to it straightaway – they loved the idea of where we were coming from and what we were about."

As Mr. Henriksen and crew progressed further south, the bus's characteristic mustard paint job got buried under a latticework of messages scribbled haphazardly on the exterior.

The adventures along the way included a major landslide and an ill-advised detour through a mountain pass in Guatemala that sent the bus and its crew barrelling down a gravel highway, hugging a cliff edge with a sheer drop to one side.

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"We were just brakes the whole way down," explained Mr. Henriksen, a carpenter.

"We went down this slight hill, slammed on the brakes, nothing happened, slammed on the foot brake, slowed down a bit." The bus then smacked into a police car – Mr. Henriksen said it was not that hard – forcing a small payout to the officers.

The World Cup Bus eventually made its way into Brazil across the border with Peru and Bolivia, exactly 60 days after it left Vancouver.

When they reached Sao Paulo, the bus crew still had a few hundred kilometres to get to their final destination of Rio de Janeiro, but by then, the adventure was well known. Mr. Henriksen said all the publicity meant he gave six interviews over a two-day period. Two of the people that were watching were Mr. de Oliveira and his wife.

"We saw them reporting on the bus, that they were planning to donate it," Mr. de Oliveria said in a television interview, speaking in Portuguese. "So we hit the road very early the next day and went after them.

"We drove all over Sao Paulo, all the way to Itaquerao Stadium in the east part of the city, everywhere. We were just going back when I decided to head downtown. As we were passing through the main avenue, my wife saw the bus and we went after them."

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When he finally flagged them down, Mr. de Oliveira made his case for his school – in spite of the language barrier – and why the bus should spend its post-World Cup days in their small town.

Over the next few weeks – whether camping out on the sands of Copacabana beach or taking up a last-minute breakfast offer from one of the locals – Mr. Henriksen said the World Cup Bus group could never shake the effect of Mr. de Oliveira's plea.

As soon as the games were over, Mr. Henriksen and two other members of World Cup Bus crew made the 12-hour trip down to Major Vieira to meet the children and officially hand over the keys on July 17.

"We were hoping fairly early on to do something like this, but we'd always kind of wanted to donate to something smaller. I'd rather this be a really big gift for a very small charity than just one more donation to something big," Mr. Henriksen said.

The Escolinha will use the bus to drive the kids to and from games against teams from neighbouring cities and eventually other states as well.

"I just want to thank them, to celebrate with them for the heart they showed in donating the bus to a football institution like ours," Mr. de Oliveira said as he spoke to reporters the day the bus was handed over.

"Before we met them, we didn't even have equipment to train with, now we have this bus."

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