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Rugby in Brazil? Don’t Laugh!

 Rugby in Brazil? Don't Laugh!

Compared to football,
rugby is almost non-existent in Brazil.
But it isn’t entirely absent. At last count there are over 50
rugby clubs in the country. This weekend, a Brazilian team
will be in the qualifying competition for the World Cup
Sevens, a shortened version of rugby with seven players.
by: Guy
Burton

 

Last week, British sport’s
worst kept secret was broken: the England rugby team’s World Cup winning captain,
Martin Johnson, finally announced his retirement.

A few months earlier my
father, who spends part of the year in the Rio suburb of Leblon, was up at
the crack of dawn to watch England’s historic victory over the Australians.
As the day warmed up outside and workmen tried to resolve the plumbing in
my parents’ bathroom, my father sat down to watch the game on ESPN Brasil.

The game was a nail-biter
from start to finish. With England ahead in the second half, they looked set
to win before letting Australia back in at the death. My father cursed. Extra-time.

When Johnny Wilkinson
scored the winning drop goal with less than thirty seconds before the final
whistle my father erupted into shouts and cheers. He danced around the house,
much to the amused befuddlement of the Brazilians in the flat.

Several weeks later my
parents were back in London. We went out to dinner and I asked my father what
he had thought of the game. "It was wonderful seeing England win—and
beating the Ozzies in their own back yard," he said. "But it wasn’t
the same in Brazil. Apart from us there were only the British pubs which showed
the game. Afterwards I wanted to run outside and celebrate. But there wasn’t
anyone on the streets. It was as if the rugby World Cup didn’t exist."

How true. Compared to
football, rugby is almost non-existent in Brazil. But it isn’t entirely absent.
My father will be amused to learn that this Friday and Saturday (23 and 24
January) Japinha (`Japanese’), Portugal, Dentinho (`Little Tooth’) and Teletubbies
(characters from a children’s TV show) will be turning out for Brazil in the
qualifying competition for the World Cup Sevens (a reduced, shortened version
of rugby which involves seven players instead of the usual fifteen) next year.

Although Brazil’s chances
of qualification are extremely low, the team will learn a lot by watching
some of the bigger names in rugby, New Zealand, France and South Africa, playing
in the same event in the Chilean city of Vina del Mar. At least they won’t
be playing against them, since they have been drawn in different pools.

The Brazilian Start

Rugby was originally invented
in 1823 when William Webb Ellis picked the ball up during a game of football
at Rugby School and ran with it. The game developed and was taken from Britain
to its colonies and immigrant communities. In the case of Brazil it arrived
with the Europeans during the nineteenth century. The Brazilian Rugby Federation
claims on its website that it was 1895 that the first team was organised by
a Charles Miller in São Paulo—surely not the same man credited
with bringing football to the country?

Even though rugby arrived
almost on the same boat as football, it didn’t establish itself as quickly
or as widely. Maybe it was the rules, which are among the most Byzantine in
sport (you can kick the ball forwards but must pass it backwards; if you kick
the ball out from behind the 25-yard line you move the resulting line-out
up the pitch to where the ball went out of play, but if you kick the ball
in front of the 25-yard line you have to make sure it bounces at least once
before rolling out, otherwise you pull the restart back to where you kicked
the ball—got that?) or the fact you can’t play the game without prior
training, but it took awhile for rugby to find a base for itself.

When football was introduced
it was initially played by the upper classes. Then the masses discovered it
and turned it into the people’s game. Once that happened its expansion was
rapid and soon there wasn’t a corner of Brazil where the game wasn’t played.

But the same didn’t happen
with rugby. It took awhile to get going, eventually finding its feet in São
Paulo during the mid-1920s. It was around this time that interstate games
began to be organised between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro; a few international
games were also played, against South Africa in 1932 and a British selection
four years later.

After the Second World
War more teams began to pop up, but whereas football took root in the Brazilian
psyche, many of the rugby clubs continued to be represented by players of
different nationalities. Alongside the pioneering Brazilians, players from
England, France, Argentina and Japan also joined the ranks.

At last count there are
over 50 clubs in the country, including in the distant and isolated states
of Mato Grosso and Amazonas. But by far the centre of Brazilian rugby is in
São Paulo, where more than half the clubs are based, including the
current national champions, São José. Other states where the
game is played include Santa Catarina, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Paraná,
Rio Grande do Sul and Brasília.

According to the web-based
and Portuguese language Rugby Magazine, most of Brazil’s rugby players
are university students. However, the sport’s authorities are keen to develop
and expand the game: they want to roll the game out to all ages, including
more of school age. But few Brazilians know much about the game; media coverage
at both national and local level remains limited.

Can It Become Popular?

Nevertheless, there is
a growing awareness of rugby: as well as ESPN Brasil’s coverage of
the World Cup final, in 2002 BandSports broadcast the Six Nations for
the first time, an international competition which brings together the British
nations, France and Italy on an annual basis. The challenge will be whether
the game can ever hope to break through against football, volleyball and Formula
One.

On the international stage,
Brazil will have to improve if it’s to attract much-needed attention. Between
1996 and 2000 the national team didn’t play at all. Since then the authorities
seem to be getting a regular dose of games for their players: in the last
three years they have managed to play in seventeen games, although mainly
against other rugby minnows like Colombia, Venezuela, Paraguay and Peru.

And yet the overall record
is reasonably good, winning 12 and losing five. But if the country is to be
taken seriously by the public it will need to start winning against tougher
competition since Brazil demands winners. And Brazil hasn’t been tested against
either of the top two nations on the continent, Argentina and Uruguay, for
more than a decade.

In 1993 Brazil played
Argentina and lost 114-3. Twelve years earlier was the last time Brazil played
Uruguay—and lost 77-0. To put this into perspective, since those results
rugby has become a professional sport and the top international sides, England,
Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and France, usually manage to beat Argentina
and Uruguay by up to thirty points. There is clearly a huge gulf in terms
of ability between the top, middle rank and emerging nations.

So rugby will have its
work cut out if it’s to turn Brazil into future world champions. But being
Brazil, if that happens, it will be along a typically idiosyncratic path.
Just as Brazil took football and gave the world the `beautiful game’, so too
might they do something with the game of rugby. Like their football-playing
cousins, Brazilian rugby players prefer to call each other by nicknames. So
during last September’s South American competition it comes as little surprise
to learn the team’s two scrum-halves were called Flash and Rapaizinho (`Quick
Little One’) while the full-back gloried in the name of Gooffy (which full-backs
usually are since they try to catch the ball while large men charge forward
at them).

And if Brazil can’t yet
compete with the big boys on the pitch, they’re already starting to devise
a version of the game which they might just be able to win. Next month the
national federation will hold its fourth beach-based sevens event in Florianópolis.
England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa would do well to send their
spies; otherwise they may well find themselves in the shade in the years ahead.

 

Guy Burton was born
in Brazil and lives in London. As a schoolboy he briefly flirted with rugby
in the full-back position before realising his talents were best used elsewhere.
As a postgraduate student he researched contemporary Brazilian politics,
the results of which were published in Gianpaolo Baiocchi’s Radicals
in Power (Zed Books, 2003). He can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com

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