Football in the land of futebol

February 16, 2014

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Sergio Moraes

Sports and I have always had an intense relationship. Ever since I was very young, I played street soccer, here called futebol, with friends. I was influenced by my father, a newspaper photographer who covered a lot of soccer and who made me want to do the same.

In my 33 years of taking all kinds of pictures, my greatest experiences were while covering sports, especially the Olympic Games. The Olympics are special to me because they give me the opportunity to photograph and experience sports that aren’t normally played in Brazil. But even after several Olympics, I still haven’t had the chance to cover American sports like NFL football, NBA basketball, and MLB baseball. I’ve watched some of those leagues during visits to the U.S., and that only made me want to photograph them even more. I’m fascinated by their level of organization, their grandeur, and their marketing.

So last February 8th, 33 years into my career, I finally got a chance to photograph a game of American football. It was, of all places, on a beach in Rio de Janeiro. The game was the Ipanema Tatuis, or “Armadillos”, versus the Copacabana Pirates and it was loads of fun. The players were all Brazilian, but they knew enough of the game to follow a few of the American traditions, such as handing the game ball to the day’s best player. It was a game of many touchdowns for the winning Armadillos, played against the backdrop of Rio’s famous Sugarloaf Mountain.

Whenever I cover a sport that is new to me, I study it carefully beforehand by looking at photos in our archives and watching games on TV and on the web. When a photographer doesn’t understand what he is covering it’s like shooting in the dark, hoping to get lucky once in a while.

This game was the opener for this season’s Carioca Bowl, which is the Rio state championship for American football played on the beach. The only spectators were players from the league’s five other teams who were not playing that day, but even so, I was impressed by the sheer number of players on each team. I never imagined I’d see so many people playing a sport that the vast majority of Brazilians don’t know much about.

A few days before that opening game I went to shoot the training of another team, the Botafogo Mammoths, which has ties to Rio’s famous Botafogo soccer team. That was my first contact with these guys, who I could see were crazy for football.

I spoke to the coach of the Botafogo Mammoths, Bruno Millano, a tall, heavy guy. He told me that he could never do well at Olympic sports such as soccer or volleyball, but that he did always like to watch NFL games on TV with his buddies. That group began to organize the first football games in Brazil in an informal way, until eventually they became organized into a league.

As I photographed the Mammoths training, I could see how democratic a sport football is. There were big players blocking the offensive runners, and skinny players running fast to evade the defense and score a touchdown. In short, there was a place for every type of player. What’s missing in Brazil are marketing and better organization for this sport to take hold here. But truthfully, those are the same things missing in many of the sports that Brazilians play.

I loved photographing American “beach football” and hope that someday this will be a good training experience for when I achieve my goal of covering an NFL game. If and when that happens,  I will consider myself “complete” as a sports photographer.

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