Children play soccer in Rio de Janeiro

Children play a game of soccer in the streets of a favela in Rio de Janiero on Sunday. Many of Brazil's soccer stars came from humble beginnings where playing barefooted soccer in the streets was a part of life. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images / June 8, 2014)

“That has got to be your starting point. And as with everything you need to start at the bottom, not the top.”

Galaxy midfielder Marcelo Sarvas, who learned the game in Sao Paulo, said he rarely saw a grass field when he was growing up. Instead he played games of five on five, shirts versus skins, with a sandal or a rock marking the boundaries of the goal.

Teammate Juninho had a similar childhood.

“We all grew up playing in the street. That’s the custom,” he says. “With small goals in the street. And from there we got better.”

Getting good enough to someday play on a grass field was something Sarvas and Juninho aspired to.

“That makes you better,” Sarvas says. “When you see all the nice stuff, the nice fields, it makes you hungry. All kids dream of becoming a professional soccer player.”

Sarvas is one of four players from Sao Paulo on the Galaxy roster, part of a larger group of players Brazil has shared with top-flight leagues all over the world.

The country’s leading export may be iron ore but it’s best known as the top producer of exceptional soccer players.

This season there are 18 Brazilians, including national team goalkeeper Julio Cesar of Toronto FC, playing in Major League Soccer, the top U.S. league. And just two of the 23 players on Brazil’s World Cup team play club soccer at home, while six Brazilians play in the English Premier League.

In his book Goldblatt writes that nearly 1,200 Brazilians played professional soccer outside their country in 2008, the high-water mark for exports. Collectively they were worth nearly a quarter-billion dollars.

“Is it because they are Brazilian? Or do they become Brazilian by playing barefoot in the street?” Goldblatt asks.

It sounds like a trick question, like trying to separate the chicken from the egg. In reality, they are one in the same since all streets leading into Brazil also lead out again.

Tiny Yuri Peterson, who would one day like to play for Barcelona, hopes soccer provides a way out for him too. “I like it,” he says shyly. “Everyone likes soccer.”

Twitter: @kbaxter11

Bevins is a special correspondent for The Times.