RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - The scene at Zumbi Beach on the outskirts of this city couldn’t have felt more Brazilian one recent Saturday afternoon. Children played soccer in the sand, and a samba band led a crowd of Carnaval revelers down the coast.
Then stocky, wild-haired Fernando Sanchez and about two dozen of his fellow rabble-rousers showed up. Whipping out footballs from backpacks, they started kicking up sand in bone-crushing tackles and filling the balmy air with punts and bombs-away passes.
They were the Ilha Avalanche, one of a growing number of football teams that have popped up around this soccer-crazy country. Instead of loose-limbed dribblers, who’ve made Brazilian soccer world-famous, these were giants, such as 6-foot 6-inch, 287-pound Marcio Serrano, who said he’d never quite found his groove playing his country’s top sport.
“People ask me, `Why are you playing this?’ and I just say, `This may come from outside Brazil, but it’s still good,’” said the 32-year-old, who’s a lawyer when he’s not playing defensive tackle for the Avalanche. “It’s a sport where people of all body types can play together on the same team.”
Sanchez said he savors football’s more visceral appeal.
“It’s legal to tackle people and throw them into the sand. I love that!”
Beginning on Rio’s famous beaches, the football craze has since spread to far-off corners of this 184 million-person country, from the modern, southern Brazilian city of Curitiba to the soybean-growing town of Cuiaba on the southern edge of the Amazon jungle.
The Rio league has more than a dozen teams, which compete in several local and national tournaments every year. The championship games can draw crowds of several hundred spectators as well as television news coverage. The players don’t use helmets or pads, but that doesn’t stop them from wildly tackling one another on the beach.
Brunno Costa, a wide receiver with local champions the Copacabana Titans, said he fell in love with the sport after he heard about it from a friend and saw the first National Football League games broadcast by satellite in Brazil.
In fact, practically everything the players know about football came from television and the Internet. Virtually none of them has ever seen a live game, Costa said.
“My dream is to one day go to the United States and go to an NFL game,” the 25-year-old said. “We do the best we can with the information we can find.”
The reaction from fellow Brazilians to the football surge has ranged from puzzlement to scorn.
During a 2006 game on Copacabana Beach, several players recalled, a candidate for Rio’s state legislature passed by with a loudspeaker denouncing the teams for turning their backs on their sporting heritage and promising to ban football from public beaches. Luckily for the players, the candidate lost the election.
Even friends and family have asked why they’ve abandoned the beautiful rhythms of soccer for violent, unwieldy football.
“Every time you do something different, there are always accusations,” Serrano said. “People are always skeptical about things they don’t know about.”
Antonio Nascimento, who sells beers and soft drinks on Zumbi Beach, said he’d take a good soccer match over football any day. He’s watched practically every Avalanche practice on the beach since the team was founded in 2005, and he still can’t figure out what’s going on.
“From what I can tell, it’s all about strength and violence,” Nascimento said from his beach chair. “Soccer is more about skill. It’s more about technique.”
Despite such criticism, more Brazilians, such as 22-year-old Rio resident Alexandre Romero, are leaving soccer behind. Echoing other players, the wide receiver with the Leme Red Lions said he likes the team nature of football and the intense strategy that underlies every play, rather than what he said is the less organized rhythm of soccer.
On a recent Sunday night, in the thick of Brazil’s annual five-day Carnaval party, Romero crushed into a local Irish bar with hordes of other football fans to watch the New York Giants upset the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. On the street outside, thousands of Brazilians and tourists danced to the strains of samba bands.
“We’ve broken limbs and fingers playing this sport,” Romero said. “We’re serious about this.”