RIO DE JANEIRO — Douglas Braga left his home in rural southeastern Brazil when he was 12, moving to Rio de Janeiro to pursue the Brazilian dream and become a professional soccer player.
Training up to eight hours a day, he had to drop out of high school. He turned professional when he was 16, and at 18 was signed as a goalie by Botafogo, one of the main Rio teams in Brazil's premier league.
Three years later, in between contracts, Braga spent some time away from the game. And he met someone — his first boyfriend.
"Playing soccer, I didn't really know or accept that I was gay, even to myself," he said.
When his agent contacted him to talk about new contract options, he decided that now that he was openly gay, he couldn't return to professional soccer.
With the most World Cup titles in soccer history, Brazil is the self-labeled país do futebol, the country of soccer. And while the sport is by far Brazil's most popular, it is traditionally associated here and throughout Latin America with a culture of machismo: a game for straight men, rife with homophobic slurs. Women are strongly discouraged from playing and often ridiculed when they do. For LGBT people, soccer has generally been considered out of the question.
"It didn't even cross my mind to play soccer professionally and be openly gay," Braga said. "You really just can't."
Even rumors of homosexuality have caused trouble. In 2013, the pro player Emerson Sheik posted an Instagram photo of himself kissing a male friend, prompting protests in which men held signs that insulted gay people or read, "This is a place for men." In 2007, Richarlyson, another pro player, filed a criminal complaint after his team's director insinuated that he was gay in a television interview. The judge dismissed the case, saying that soccer is "virile, masculine and not homosexual."
After coming out, Braga didn't play soccer for 10 years.
Then he heard about LiGay, an LGBT soccer movement that has spread throughout Brazil since it started this year. He participated in the group's first official tournament, the Champions LiGay, in November.
"I got on the field and was nearly in tears. It was like a time machine," Braga said. "I was mixing two parts of my life I never, ever thought could mix."
Braga now plays for the BeesCats Soccer Boys, Rio's first gay soccer team. The team was founded in May by André Machado, a Sao Paulo native who had played with a gay team in his home town and had grown frustrated with the lack of playing options when he moved to Rio. He rented a pitch to test out the idea. At the first practice, 15 people came. By the fourth, there were 150.
"There's no law prohibiting it, but in Brazil, there's a social barrier that de facto prohibits gays from playing," Machado said. "Now many are rediscovering the sport after being bullied out of it as kids."
Machado saw the opportunity to form a formal league. He reached out to gay communities in other cities and eventually got eight teams together for that first tournament in November. Since then, the LiGay has grown to 16 teams and counting from all corners of Brazil. The players are almost all gay men, along with several who are transgender.
"We're disrupting Brazil's crown jewel," Machado said. "It's one of the most machista, homophobic environments in this country, but we're making our presence here known."
The country has seen a wave of hate crimes against LGBT people in recent years.
"In the context of soccer it's even more aggravated," said Luana Souza, a psychology professor at the University of Fortaleza who has studied homophobia in the game. "The idea of masculinity in Brazil is connected to soccer."
"If Brazil is 15 years behind the U.S. or Europe in terms of accepting homosexuality and LGBT rights, then Brazil's soccer community is another 15 years behind that," Machado said.
The BeesCats recently became the first gay team to join Rio's amateur league. Organizers welcomed them, but when local media posted an article about their debut on Facebook, the reaction was not kind. "If it were a team from SP [Sao Paulo], I would kill them now," wrote one Facebook user listed as being from Sao Paulo.
But Machado and the BeesCats hope their expanding movement will be a catalyst for change.
"Marta [Vieira da Silva] showed that women can play soccer, and thanks to her, there's more acceptance of women playing. I want us to be like that for gays in soccer," Machado said of Brazil's star female player. "My hope is that in a few years, it'll be considered really not okay to say homophobic slurs in soccer."
Hurling insults such as "pansy" or references to gay sex at opponents is widely accepted at professional games in Brazil. FIFA, soccer's international governing body, has fined the Brazilian soccer federation, along with other Latin American organizations, over the issue several times in recent years.
"It's gives me a knot in the pit of my stomach when I hear that, en masse, at a stadium," said Flávio Amaral, a BeesCats player.
There are several official LGBT fan clubs for professional teams, although they seldom go to the stadiums openly, fearing for their safety. High-stakes soccer games in Brazil are infamously violent — brawls are common and sometimes result in deaths. In January 2017, members of a fan club for a second-division team were violently assaulted after they brought out a rainbow flag in the stands.
Nathalia Duarte, the founder of Galo Queer, a fan group for one of Brazil's main clubs, said the group was bombarded with violent threats after it created its Facebook page. "We still don't think it's safe to go to stadiums as a queer fan club," she said. "But prejudice is so ingrained in soccer, it wasn't even discussed, so we feel we have to discuss it."
Braga, the former professional player, says he can't help but reflect on the opportunities he passed up.
"Seeing some of the guys from my time as pro playing on TV, some of them in Europe even, it definitely makes me wonder about what would have happened if I could continue playing after coming out," he said. "But now I'm so proud to be a part of this team and spreading this movement."