Quarterback Ramon Martire hopes that with luck and with practice, the No. 4 he wears might someday draw comparisons to another No. 4: future NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre. But right now, Martire, a 23-year-old design student from Rio de Janeiro, must content himself with steering his local team, Fluminense Imperadores, through its practices on the beach here in Rio.
Martire is one of a growing number of Brazilian men and women who are embracing U.S.-style football, still a distinctly alien sport in a country known worldwide for its stylish mastery of soccer.
“I see the sport with a great future in Brazil because of the aggressiveness, the energy, the determination and the amount of dedication put into the game,” he said. “This represents Brazil.”
Martire’s Imperadores are one of the three men’s teams that play full-contact American football, with pads, in Rio. Flavio Cardia, 35, an auctioneer who serves as the executive director of the Brazilian Association of American Football, said there were more than 60 other teams across the country.
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The association, established in 2000, also runs a Brazilian national team and has the backing of the International Federation of American Football, which promotes the game around the globe.
Known worldwide not only for soccer but also for volleyball and Formula One racing, Brazil perhaps isn’t the first country that comes to mind for American football. But Brazil has welcomed other American sports – such as basketball, mixed martial arts and rodeo – that have become part of its sporting culture. Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa are among a handful of Brazilians who play in the NBA.
American football is just getting started here. It was first played here in the 1980s, reputedly introduced by a Rio native who learned the game while on vacation in the United States and began playing with friends at Copacabana Beach.
As far as local officials can determine, Brazil has yet to produce an NFL player, nor is it exactly a major stop on the tour of American college coaches looking for recruits. Perhaps its best-known player is Maikon Bonani, a native of Sao Paulo who’s a kicker for the University of South Florida.
Another Brazilian star already is playing pro football in the U.S., but not with the NFL. Her name is Deniele Barbosa, and she’s the starting quarterback for the Miami Fury of the Women’s Football Alliance, a full-contact women’s league.
In the 1990s, Brazil’s national sports channel carried a weekly broadcast, Cardia said. ESPN has broadcast American football games here and plans to add college football broadcasts this year, Cardia said.
But getting exposure has proved to be only half the battle.
Finding a Portuguese copy of the rules of American football is extremely difficult. In crowded cities, few athletic fields aren’t already devoted to soccer. Equipment is expensive if bought locally, so teams rely on players to bring back equipment when they travel to the U.S.
Players such as Martire, the quarterback, often buy their own equipment, and it isn’t cheap. A full set of pads shipped to Rio from an American outfitter costs about $240, while a helmet costs about $214. Bigger equipment, such as tackling dummies, has yet to arrive.
These factors drove the sport to where just about everything else in Rio ends up sooner or later: the beach, where space is free, the need for equipment minimal and a ready audience rarely lacking. Thus Brazilian beach football was born.
The field in beach football is shorter by 38 yards than the standard 100-yard American football field. The goalposts are different as well. Most teams place a soccer goal on each end of the field and include four to six PVC pipes to create an ’H’ figure.
The more familiar American game – players tackling on the grass, fully equipped with pads, mouth guards and helmets – has come more recently. In 2009 the first national tournament was held, called Touchdown, a private competition that was limited to teams that could afford the equipment and travel costs. This year, the fourth edition of the tournament will host 18 teams in a five-month competition starting in July.
A study last year by the Brazilian Association of American Football found that there were about 200 people in Brazil who routinely played football in 2000. By 2011, that number had jumped to more than 5,000.
As more evidence of the sport’s growth, Brazil’s major soccer teams have noticed football. The Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, a major soccer team from Sao Paulo, formed a football team as a partner in 2004. Today 10 First Division soccer clubs have partnerships with American-style football teams, offering the use of their brand names and in some cases facilities.
“The soccer teams give us visibility," said Caroliny Machado, 21, who plays wide receiver for Fluminense Guerreiras, a women’s team in Rio. “It works as a window to show the sport.”
VIDEO: AMERICAN FOOTBALL IN BRAZIL