Chris Gibbons: Beach football all the rage
One of the things that has struck us on our Brazilian trip is the number of kids playing football. There have not actually been many.
The image of a Brazil where the next Pelé or Ronaldo can be found juggling a ball made out of rags on every street corner doesn’t seem to ring quite true. We have driven past scores of pitches, whether purpose-built urban ones or makeshift ones on a patch of wasteland with the proverbial sticks and a piece of string for a goal — virtually all of them empty.
I think in the course of two weeks across four cities, we have seen maybe one pitch with a few kids kicking around, a couple of foot volleyball games and two kids briefly knocking a ball around in a street near our hotel in Salvador.
Then we arrived in Rio de Janeiro this week and realised what? — everyone’s playing football on the beach.
For all the clichés about Copacabana Beach, it is still astonishing to see so much football going on all along the famous five-mile-long stretch of sand. There must be more than 100 games going on at any one time, with the freely available metal yellow or white goal frames dragged into position and pitches marked out with sticks and flags.
The beauty of beach football, Rio-style, is that for the most part, it is an equal-opportunity sport. It does not seem to matter what age you are or how good or bad you may be; if you want to join in, you simply ask. The only rule seems to be that the teams must remain equal in number.
Within minutes of walking on to the sand, my son Toby was playing in a fiercely competitive nine-a-side pick-up game involving players aged 10 to 40, from Rio, Sweden, England, Turkey, Colombia and France. Needless to say, Toby had the time of his life — and even managed a couple of goals.
After an hour or so, though, the players were forced to give way to a couple of proper beach teams, complete with co-ordinated kits. It may be a vast expanse of sand, but apparently there is a pecking order and teams from various bars or clubs have their regular spot in front of their favourite beachside café.
In short order, the pitch was marked out with Brazilian corner flags and battle commenced at a furious pace, with dazzling inter-passing, outrageous flicks and overhead volleys. I doubt whether these were even close to being two of the best teams on the beach — so it makes you wonder, with all this artistry and natural talent on show, how on earth did Brazil end up with Fred and Hulk?
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Tuesday’s epic clash between the United States and Belgium at Salvador’s Arena Fonte Nova was easily the best match we have witnessed so far. The Americans certainly left everything on the pitch in terms of guts and determination in taking a hugely talented Belgium team to the limit. Their fans, decked out as everything from the Statue of Liberty to Captain America, played their part in creating a memorable atmosphere. But you did wonder whether, with a bit more enterprise on the pitch, the Americans might have made more of a golden opportunity to reach the quarter-finals. The absent Landon Donovan was not the only pundit to wonder why Clint Dempsey was forced to go it alone up front. Indeed, one could not help wondering what a difference old “Landycakes” himself might have made.
The Belgians look a class act — if only they could improve their finishing. Quite why coach Marc Wilmots left it until extra time to bring on the devastating Romelu Lukaku was a bit of a mystery. You get the feeling they may just be growing into the competition at the right time and could be more than a handful for Argentina.
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We are eagerly anticipating our next match — France against Germany and our first visit to the fabled Maracanã Stadium. The Germans were lucky to beat Algeria and it will be interesting to see how much that exhausting match will have taken out of them.
All the talk here, though, is of tomorrow’s other quarter-final, in which Brazil take on Colombia. If the hosts were nervous before the Chile match, they are bordering on fatalism in facing the impressive Colombians and the outstanding James Rodríguez.
“We don’t have a great team and we haven’t been playing well enough to deserve to reach this stage,” said one worried Brazil fan I talked to on the train up to the Christ the Redeemer statue at Corcovada. “We were very, very lucky against Chile. We will have to be very lucky again.”
What worries many Brazilian fans is that, as much as they love their iconic No?10 — and they really love Neymar here — they fear that, as former World Cup winner Tostão commented this week: “The problem for Brazil is that they only have two plans: one, give the ball to Neymar; two, give the ball to the Neymar.”
Chris Gibbons is a former Sports Editor of the Mid-Ocean News and Deputy Sports Editor of The Royal Gazette