American football making inroads in soccer-crazy Brazil
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Dropping back to unload a long bomb to a receiver streaking downfield, quarterback Ramon Martire hopes that with luck and with practice, the No. 4 he wears might someday draw comparisons to another No. 4 — future Hall of Famer Brett Favre.
But right now, Martire, a 23-year-old design student from Rio de Janeiro, must content himself with steering the Fluminense Imperadores through their practices on the beach here. And instead of suiting up at Lambeau Field to face the Green Bay Packers of the National Football league, the best Martire can do now is get his Imperadors ready to face local Rio rivals such as the Vasco da Gama Patriotas or the Botafogo Mamutes.
Martire is one of a growing number of Brazilian men — and women as well — who are embracing American-style football, still a distinctly alien sport in a country known throughout the world for its stylish mastery of soccer, the kind of football that really is played with the feet.
“I see the sport with a great future in Brazil because of the aggressiveness, the energy, the determination, and the amount of dedication put into the game,” Martire says.
“This represents Brazil.”
Brazilians who play American football say it is the mental part of the game, rather than its brutality, speed and violence, that attracts them.
“Players in Brazil do not carry with them the usual stereotype of unfamiliar viewers that American football is simply an aggressive team sport,” Martire says. “We play because of the strategy that goes into the game.”
Martire’s Imperadores are one of the three men’s teams that play full-contact and full-pad American football in Rio. Flavio Cardia, 35, an auctioneer for the Municipal Theater of Rio and the executive director the Brazilian Association of American Football, says there are more than 60 other teams across the country.
The association, established in 2000, also runs the Brazilian national team of American football. And it has the backing of the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), which promotes American football around the globe.
IFAF manages world tournaments for men, women and youth teams in full contact and flag football among its 59 countries affiliated, including the United States through USA Football.
Known worldwide not only for soccer but Formula One car racing and volleyball, Brazil is perhaps not the first country that comes to mind when contemplating the spread of American football. But Brazil has been welcoming to other American sports — basketball, mixed martial arts (MMA) and rodeo — that have now become part of the nation’s sporting culture.
These sports have exported athletes who have become international superstars. A solid Brazilian presence can be found in basketball, with two or three Brazilian stars now in the NBA. And
Brazilians share a more typically-American passion for rodeo. Rodeo in Brazil — like in the U.S. — draws huge crowds in competitions located mostly in the country’s vast agricultural interior.
By comparison, football is just getting started — even though it has been played in Brazil for more than 30 years.
Cardia dates the introduction of American football to Brazil to the middle 1980s. “The most well-known history is about Robert Segal [a native of Rio], who went to the United States in the 1980s during a family vacation and brought a football back to Brazil with him,” Cardia says. “He then started playing with some friends at the Copacabana Beach here in Rio.”
As far as local officials can determine, Brazil has yet to produce an NFL player, nor is it exactly a major stop on the tour of American college coaches looking for recruits. Perhaps its best known player in the U.S. is Maikon Bonani, a native of Sao Paulo who is the kicker for the University of South Florida, and is said to be the Brazilian player with the best chance of landing a spot on an NFL team.
Another Brazilian star is already playing pro football in the US, but not with the NFL. Her name is Daniele Barbosa and she is the starting quarterback for the Miami Fury of the Women’s Football Alliance.
In fact the women’s game is growing stride for stride with the men’s game in Brazil, for many of the same reasons.
“You think about the strategy that goes into the game,” says Caroliny Machado, 21, a physical education major who is a wide receiver for the Fluminense Guerreiras, a Rio women’s team with more than 20 players. “Everybody thinks this is a violent game, but actually it is a strategy game.”
Machado says her first exposure to football came on TV. “Like many other Brazilians, I did not have a clue of what was going on in the game at first,” she recalls.
As with the NFL in its fledgling years, television was instrumental. In the 1990s, Brazil’s national sports channel, BANDESPORTES, carried a weekly weekly broadcast, Cardia says. ESPN has also provided exposure for the development of the sport, he said, by broadcasting American football games to Brazil. This year, they’re adding college football broadcasts as well, Cardia says.
Getting exposure has proven to be only half the battle, though.
For example, just finding a Portuguese language copy of the rules of American football is extremely difficult. And in crowded cities, there is a dearth of open athletic fields that are not already devoted to soccer.
Equipment, also, is very expensive if bought locally. So teams rely on players to bring equipment when they travel to the U.S.
“Most of the money comes from the players,” says Otavio Roichman, 38, a car insurance worker who is the head coach of the Imperadores in his spare time. “Last year we spent $35,000, but a football team needs a lot more than that if we want to practice more [often] and travel in better conditions.”
Players like the Imperadores quarterback, Martire, often buy their own equipment—and it isn’t cheap. A full set of pads shipped to Rio from an American outfitters costs about $240. A helmet costs approximately $214.
“The players understood that in the first three years there was going to be a lot of money involved to practice the sport, such as renting the fields, travel expenses, equipment, etc,” Martire says.
Roichman calls helmets and shoulder-pads “the small stuff,” and mentions that they can be brought in a suitcase. “But the practice stuff like dummies, slides we don't have anything. It's pretty hard to practice without those,” he says.
These factors drove the sport in to where just about everything else in Rio ends up sooner or later – to the beach, where space is free, the need for equipment minimal, and a ready audience rarely lacking. Thus Brazilian beach football was born.
The field in beach football is shorter by 38 yards than the standrad 100 yard American football field. The goal posts are different as well. Most teams place a soccer goal on each end of the field and include four to six PVC pipes to create an 'H' figure.
Beach football is popular enough to have it own tournament, The Carioca Bowl, which now involves nine men’s and three women’s teams..
The more familiar American game—players tackling on the grass, fully equipped with pads, mouth-guards and helmets — has come more or less recently. Cardia said the change came in 2008.
“During 2008 players in Brazil from beach and flag football had a desire to play in the grass with all the equipment,” Cardia says.
Roichman's team, the Imperadores, was one of the innovators. “If you wanted to wear the full equipment to play American football in Rio you had to come to Imperadores,” he says.
No one has a full time job in Brazilian football – at least not yet. Practices are limited to twice a week, one two-hour practice during the week and one for four hours on the weekend. The team normally practices on natural grass fields in small stadiums.
This quick evolution of the sport in Brazil brought in 2009 the first national tournament, called Touchdown. This private competition was limited to teams that could afford the trips across the continent-sized country and wanted to play with the full pads.
It was organized by André Adler, a Brazilian former anchor and commentator of football from 1992 to 2006 on ESPN Brasil.
This year, the fourth edition of the tournament will be hosting 18 teams in a five months competition kicking off in July.
The Brazilian League of America football, which merged with the Brazilian Association of the sport last year, did not wait much longer to launch its own national league in 2010 featuring 14 teams. Although they do not pay a big check throughout their tournament, this year beginning in July and lasting until November, more than 30 teams will be playing throughout Brazil, according to Mario Lewandowski, former marketing director from the Brazilian Association of American Football.
A study done last year by the Brazilian Association of American Football revealed that in 2000 there were about 200 people in Brazil who routinely played football, while in 2011 this number jumped to more than 5,000 players practicing football within 21 different states across the country.
But everyone recognizes that American football is still in an early stage, and suffers with the status of an amateur sport. “Our sport is fairly new in Brazil. It is not an Olympic sport yet, and many people still do not pay much attention because we are an amateur league,” Cardia says.
“We have real passion for the game,” says Roichman. “You don't spend money in a thing you don't like. I sometines pay using my salary for players who cannot afford a trip.”
Evidence of the sport’s growth, though, comes in strange forms – American football has been noticed by Brazil’s major soccer teams.
The Sport Clube Corinthians Paulista, a major soccer team from São Paulo, formed an American football team as a partner in 2004. Today 10 First Division soccer clubs have partnerships with American football teams.
Roichman explains that the soccer clubs only offer their brand name and in some rare cases their facilities. This way the football team can have a better chance to successfully find sponsorships.
“The soccer teams give us visibility, it works as a window to show the sport,” Machado says.