SAO PAOLO, Brazil - Mention "soccer moms" in the United States, and an American is likely to think of a frazzled suburban mother carting her children off to sports practice and juggling a thousand domestic demands.
Talk about soccer moms in Brazil, though, and the image conjured is liable to be of a frightened woman held hostage by armed kidnappers.
The reason is that since November, the mothers of four professional soccer players have been abducted in and around this sprawling megalopolis. Three of the women have been freed, including one whose son reportedly paid a large ransom, but the fourth remains a captive.
The kidnappings have sown fear among Brazil's soccer stars, who enjoy exalted status in a land where their sport approaches something of a national religion. Some players have hired extra security for family members; others have hustled loved ones off to new lodgings or refused to let their mothers be publicly photographed.
"We're up against a wall," said Edinaldo Batista Libanio, a 26-year-old star striker for the Sao Paolo Football Club, whose mother was one of those abducted and freed. "We have to take care of our relatives, parents and children, and pray to God those people keep away."
Targeting soccer moms is the latest trend in what is virtually a kidnapping industry here in South America's largest city. A recent study found that, on average, someone is abducted every three days.
Victims have largely been businessmen, conspicuous in their flashy suits and cars in a city where misery and squalor are widespread. But middle- and even working-class residents are targeted, too, especially in "lightning kidnappings" by assailants who drag their hostages from cash machine to cash machine and force them to take out money. To help curb such crimes, banks have imposed a daily limit on automated teller machine withdrawals.
The wave of attacks on athletes' mothers began with the kidnapping Nov. 6 of Marina da Silva de Souza. Her 21-year-old son, Robson, known as Robinho, is a nimble-footed wunderkind who some commentators think may be the next big thing in Brazilian soccer.
Souza, 43, was snatched by gunmen while attending a barbecue about 50 miles outside Sao Paolo. Her captors kept her hostage for 40 days while they negotiated with her family.
Robinho, who plays for Santos, the former team of Pele, was removed from play by his team during the ordeal. His agent announced that talks with the many European clubs eager to lure away the promising young striker - one British team has offered $13 million for him - were suspended.
Souza was freed sometime during the night of Dec. 16, unharmed but several pounds thinner. Police decline to confirm whether a ransom was paid, but news reports say the family handed over as much as $100,000 for her release.
"I was so happy to see my mom," Robinho told reporters after his mother returned home to a crowd of well-wishers and motorists honking their horns in support. "A mother's hug is all a kid wants in life."
The next victim was Libanio's mother, Ilma de Castro Libanio, 52. On the afternoon of Feb. 23, armed assailants broke into her home outside Sao Paolo, tied up her husband and other son, and forced her to leave with them. The next day, as the family anxiously awaited contact from the kidnappers, police in pursuit of a rape suspect stumbled upon the home where she was being held and freed her.
"It was by accident, or by God," Libanio said in an interview during a break in practice at his team's training ground.
Two weeks after Libanio's family's nightmare, the mother of Luis Fabiano, a striker for a Portuguese team, was kidnapped in Campinas, about an hour's drive from here. She is still missing.
The most recent incident also occurred in Campinas, a city hit heavily by abductions. The mother of player Rogerio Fidelis Regis was kidnapped from her home March 21. Police freed her four days later and are investigating whether the two abductions in Campinas were carried out by the same gang.
Authorities suspect that the spate of kidnappings of soccer moms is an idea imported from Argentina, which endured a wave of similar crimes a few years ago. In many of those cases, however, the victims were players' male relatives.
Going after the mother is especially effective in a culture where family matriarchs are powerfully revered figures. Sons, especially those who are young and single, remain extremely attached to their mothers, said Maria de Fatima Franco dos Santos, a forensic psychologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas.
"No son wants to see his mother in a helpless situation, so they've become easy targets," Franco dos Santos said. "If you kidnap the mother, you hit the son very hard."
Diego Tardelli, 19, a teammate of Libanio's, is moving his mother from his hometown to Sao Paolo, where "nobody knows her," said the up-and-coming striker.
"She's not going out much," Tardelli said. "She's afraid."
Tardelli added that he and his teammates no longer fear for only their relatives' safety, but for their own as well.
"There are a lot of people outside the club, and you don't know who they are," he said. "They can pretend they want your autograph, but then they write down your license plate number and follow your car."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.