Playing ‘naked’ soccer in Brazil

May 12, 2014

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Sergio Moraes

Why do we Brazilians refer to our neighborhood soccer matches as ‘peladas’? A search on the web brings up many answers, but not one is really definitive. In English ‘pelada’ means ‘naked’ in the feminine gender, but none of the answers I found has to do with playing the sport with no clothes on.

One version talks of street soccer where everyone plays barefoot, or with ‘naked’ feet, running after the ball without a referee or any regard for rules.

Players battle for the ball during a Sunday "pelada" soccer match in the Borel favela of Rio de Janeiro, a World Cup host city, May 4, 2014. Sunday soccer is a decades-old tradition when Brazilians of all walks of life play on the beaches, in the slums, and on the streets matches that are known as "peladas" or "naked". Pelada can refer to a street match where everyone plays barefoot with ÒnakedÓ feet, or a match on a grassless ÒnakedÓ field, or a match with a ball so worn that it is Ònaked.Ó With the 2014 World Cup just one month away, people of all walks of life in the host cities are spending their Sundays practicing the sport for which their country is about to become the global stage. The tournament will take place in Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Natal, Fortaleza, Salvador, Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Cuiaba, Manaus, and Recife. Picture taken May 4, 2014.  REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes (BRAZIL)

The version that strikes me as most coherent is in reference to the fields where weekend matches are played – most of them are grassless, or ‘naked’, as the description fits.

A player makes a corner kick during a Sunday "pelada" soccer match in the Morro do Papagaio favela in Belo Horizonte

While pro soccer fields are beautiful carpets of well-manicured grass, the peladas are usually played on just dirt and sand. The term has also been adopted to refer to a bad professional match. We often say, if a First Division match is boring, “What a pelada!”

Discarded soccer boots hang from an electric wire after Sunday "pelada" soccer matches in the Morro do Papagaio favela in Belo Horizonte

One thing is certain – pelada has nothing to do with a naked woman.

When I was a kid peladas didn’t have to compete with video games for players. Streets didn’t have nearly the traffic they do nowadays and we turned them into a stage for peladas every afternoon after school. But Sundays were always, and still are today, the classic day of the peladas.

Children play a Sunday "pelada" soccer match in Brasilia

It was on the streets, on the dirt fields and on the beaches that we became the stars of own childhood dreams.

In the 1960’s I used to love going to watch the league tournaments on the beach, with teams that played 11 a side, unlike the normal beach soccer of just five. My neighborhood team was Columbia. My friends and I would go early to the beach to play our own pelada before Columbia’s matches. We all wanted to be pro soccer players, but on the beach we wanted to be Columbia players.

Players battle for the ball during a Sunday "pelada" soccer match in Salvador

We would also organize matches on our streets against kids from other neighborhoods. In those peladas each of us became the pro player we considered idol, and for each goal scored we’d celebrate as if the sidewalk were a huge, packed grandstand. I still remember scoring a few goals and screaming, “GOOOOOOOOOOOOAL by Fisher.” Fisher was an Argentine player, idol on my favorite team, Botafogo.

Boys play a Sunday "pelada" soccer match in Sao Paulo

Today when we walk by a pelada, either on the street or in some abandoned lot or on the beach, it’s impossible not to stop and watch for a few minutes. We usually cheer for the team that has a skilled player, or a team that’s wearing the jersey of one of our favorite clubs.

Boys play a Sunday "pelada" soccer match in the center of Manaus

But better than just watching a pelada is to play one and pretend you’re on the field of Maracana stadium, like during the final of the World Cup that begins in one month here. You can pretend you’re the ace of your childhood dreams – the ace that doctors, engineers, lawyers, civil servants, butchers, bakers, businessmen, dentists and photographers always dreamed of being.


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