For nine-year-old Thiago Pinto, becoming a professional soccer player was his greatest aspiration – the end goal.
Scampering around the streets of Belo Horizonte with a ball at his feet, the beautiful game was at the center of his childhood.
It’s a passion that comes from his parents, both avid soccer fans who used to collect him from school on the way to watch local club Atlético Mineiro, never missing a game.
Now 38, it is clear that the South Bend Lions technical director and head coach has lived and breathed community soccer having continued to make his mark in the local area since moving to Bethel University as a freshman 19 years ago.
Those early experiences as a student soccer player, as well as pursuing coaching and non-profit work in the game, have been so influential in shaping the person he is today.
“I realized the game is not an end goal, but a means to the end,” he explained. “It’s a way for us to grow and develop, to meet people, and to fulfill a purpose.
“I took a small group of players to Niger in 2008 – one of the poorest countries in the world, in the middle of the Sahara Desert – and we ran a training session on an open dirt field.
“I remember walking away at the end and seeing the impact, not just on the kids, but on the locals who were trying to help these young children and give them better guidance in life.
“How powerful the game was in the community, helping to transform people, is something that I will never forget.”
After injuries cut short his playing days, this heartfelt lesson helped Pinto transition from the field to a head coach role at just 25 years old while utilizing his experiences as an academy player for two of Brazil’s greatest clubs.
In his younger years, Pinto had won state championships in futsal and learned Ginga, Brazil’s iconic style of play. He then spent five memorable years developing his game as a youngster at Cruzeiro and watching a 16-year-old Ronaldo train up close before getting his own taste of first-team practice.
“The first team was in the semifinal of the Brazilian league, but they had two injuries and were short for practice.
“I was 13 years old and my squad was the only one on the training ground, so me and a friend from that squad got to train with the first team. I was pretty tall by then and it was a great experience.
“I went on to have coaches such as Ney Franco who become a top coach in Brazilian football. I left Cruzeiro to become part of the U-20 squad at Mineiro and often trained with the first team alongside brilliant players like Gilberto Silva and Mancini.
“But I’m even more excited about South Bend Lions because the potential impact on the surrounding area is much greater.
“As a coach, I have the ability to influence players and the community more so than when I was a young player trying to be something for myself.”
While featuring in four NAIA National Tournaments for Bethel Pilots, the midfielder coached children from local high schools and clubs, such as Elkhart Flames, so they could have what Pinto felt was lacking in his home city.
“My parents were great, but I didn’t have the right mentors around me in the game in Brazil, so I started a new life as a player in the US and I very quickly got into coaching.
“The many injuries I had, and the great people around me, really allowed me to see the game in a different way.
“Here at South Bend Lions, we have the right people involved with some great support from youth soccer, schools, coaches, and the community, which hopefully continues into our inaugural season.
“We want to create the best environment for young footballers to progress in the game and life, allowing them to be better human beings, leaders, and people who care about serving others, not just themselves.
“We are seeing that right now with the U-18 program, which is a big commitment for our coaches, but we believe in giving these young kids the opportunity to grow.”
Pinto has been named NAIA Crossroads League Coach of the Year three times in his 12 years at the Pilots so far, and studied coaching licenses in Brazil, Spain and USA, and completed tours to Asia, Africa and South America.
Over time, he has built a global vision of soccer that he is developing in the Bend.
“One of the best teams I ever coached had a great blend of different player nationalities and playing styles in one system – that’s the beauty of the experience I’ve had in the US.
“There is a lot of talent on offer, as to be competitive in USL League Two, you are working with the college standouts who are committed to becoming professionals.
“We want to be a reference point nationally and internationally in not just being a competitive team, but creating a development pathway for young players to move to the next level.
“In South Bend, we are creating history. This is something that’s unique and part of the soccer movement in the US; it’s the means to the end.”