Documentary and story on Brazilian favela soccer program marks networks entrance into documentaries and long-form features.

By Chantal Braganza, Associate Editor

Earlier this spring, Rick Westhead flew to Rio de Janeiro to report on a street soccer program in the city’s favelas that gave young women an opportunity to play a sport that, in Brazil, is often socially restricted to men. 

As a senior correspondent for TSN and a former foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star, the process of reporting the story wasn’t new for Westhead, but the format was. “Favela United,” the resulting story, was published online earlier this month to coincide with the FIFA Women’s World Cup games in Canada this year. Both a 14-minute documentary and magazine-length interactive, the feature marks the network’s entrance into long-form sports reporting—something Westhead hopes to do more of.

“I was in newspapers for a long time, so this medium is really new to me,” Westhead said of his move to TSN last summer. “I was dying to find new stories about more than player profiles.” Last February, after remembering a short report about women and soccer in Brazil that he read in the Guardian last year, Westhead pitched the idea to his editors.

“I made the case to my boss that this was the type of story that would resonate and be evergreen and wouldn’t be dated after the World Cup.” The story follows the lives of Jéssica and Thaiane, two women who grew up in Complexo de Penha and had either lost family members or been involved in the favela’s local drug trade. 

Woven into the narrative of their involvement in a local soccer program and eventual championship win at the 2014 Street Child World Cup is a background of the endemic violence, social inequality and upheaval last year’s FIFA World Cup brought to Brazil through the country’s favela pacification program. Shortly after it first aired on TSN on June 13, Fox Sports ran the documentary in full.

The written feature, on the other hand, combines text with interview clips and animated data.  “When I think of how Canadian sports stories are often told long-form, they’ve fallen into the same template: a full-screen photo with a text headline, the story text scrolls up,” Westhead said. “I haven’t seen a lot of video intertwined with text. That’s what we were trying to get to.”

The reception has gone over well enough, said Westhead, that at least three more features in this format are in the works for the rest of the year. In working on them, he said, he’ll bring a lot of what he’s learned from his previous beat.

“One of the tactics I’ve always used is to walk away from press conferences. I hate doing stores that everyone else is covering…if I were a sports editor with  a finite budget, why blow it on stories everyone is doing at the same time?”

“There’s foreign affairs reporters out there who are great at covering policy, big-picture areas and looking at the world through a macro lens. My skill is more in finding the human stories that illustrate a bigger-picture piece. That’s what I’ve been good at, and what I want to keep doing.”