In November 1996 I left New Zealand to attend a month’s Coaching Course in Brazil. At the time I was part way through my BA at Auckland University where I was majoring in Anthropology. I was also engaged as National Coach for the NZ Women’s squad and through this position I was able to obtain a study grant from the NZ Sports Ministry to help me with expenses. I was particularly interested to combine my academic cultural studies with my football interests. Of particular interest to me was to observe the nature/nurture debate in regard to how much of Brazil’s talent in football could be put down to genetics or the social-cultural factors. I realized that to come to a definite conclusion was unrealistic, however, I hoped to expand my horizons from both an academic and footballing perspective. The flight to Brazil took us across the Pacific Ocean to the capital of Argentine Buenos Aires, where we spent two days before departing for our destination Rio de Janeiro.
A birds-eye view of Rio with a favela in the foreground and the central city in the background.
The venue for the Course was set on the outskirts of Rio deJaneiro where the participants were accommodated in a Hotel and ferried by bus each day to the training pitch.
We were ferried each day to the training pitch.
The diversity of the Brazilian population is a major factor when you take into account the genetic component involved in the development of Brazil’s footballers. The population comprises of many races and ethnic groups, however, in general, Brazilians trace their origins from four sources; American Indians, Europeans, Africans and Asians. The population of Brazil is estimated at approximately 190,000,000 and comprises of a comparatively young population where an estimated 25% are younger than 15 years. When I began to investigate further in the origins of the Brazilian population it became quite staggering to appreciate its multiplicity. In addition to the indigenous Indian occupiers the Portuguese were the main European settlers, however, substantial numbers also arrived from Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland. Immigrants from many Asian countries also populated Brazil and the country has the largest number of people with Japanese ancestry outside of Japan. There are millions of Brazilians who are directly descended from former African slaves or immigrants, and large numbers have some degree of African ancestry in their blood. When it is taken into account that racial discrimination is minimal, leading to interracial breeding being commonplace, it is not surprising that chromosomal changes which alter the phenotype produce the variations that can generate a Pele, Garrincha, Zico, Ronaldo, Ronaldino and many others. When such genetic variation is coupled with the football environment experienced by most Brazilian children (as discussed below), then it is small wonder that this country continues to produce world class players in abundance.
Meeting two ‘greats’ of Brazilian and World Football; Carlos Alberto and Zico was an humbling experience.
Rio’s beaches stretched out extensively with lifeguard stations interspersed every few kilometers. These stations ran their own small sided teams which played in competitions against each other. Unbelievably (to us), top Brazilian stars such as Romario would turn out and play in these games. At one match we talked to Edmondo, who was at the time contracted to a top Italian club, but this didn’t deter him from turning out for his local team. These small sided games indicated another environmental stage in the development of footballers in Rio. The challenge of running, dribbling and judging the uneven bounce of the ball, which sandy surfaces can produce, make anticipating and controlling the ball much more difficult, tending to develop quick reactions and changes of direction.
Rio’s beaches are excellent to develop players and coaches; but can also offer distractions….
Many beach volley ball courts were spread along the shorelines and these were often used for football tennis. Youngsters would play for hours knocking the ball over the high net attempting to score points against each other. At one stage I joined another of our party in a challenge match against two locals. The moment that I stepped into the giving sand I realized that this was going to be a demanding encounter. Trying to reach, control and propel the football whilst moving through the soft sand left my legs empty and powerless. This form of football tennis served to make me appreciate the leg strength that Brazilian players could develop by playing countless hours of this game. The soft sand also allowed participants to use the overhead volley with no fear of injury when landing. Players also developed the chest pass in order to set up volleying opportunities for their partner. The Clubs recognized the value of this game as a training tool as I was to observe football tennis courts at Flamenco, Udenesie, most of the other training centres which we visited. At Flamenco’s training ground they had commemorated the longest contest ever between two top players which ended without a winner. The game went on for several hours and had to be abandoned because the team had an important match on the following day; the protagonists were beginning to get exhausted, prompting the Coach to walk away in disgust.
Football on a beach volleyball court invokes techniques which are difficult to replicate in a ‘normal’ training session.
However, despite all the beach football/volleyball games in which players participated, one of the Brazilian Coaches confided in me that footballers were developed by spending most of their young lives playing in the Favelas, streets, and any available piece of ground that they could find.
Cheeky Rio de Janeiro kids play their football on any piece of available ground that they can find.
At Zico’s training centre he pointed out to me the youngsters arriving, or being dropped off by their parents. “How many of these will become professional players,” he asked. “Maybe a few,” was my answer. “None,” was his reply, “their families are affluent and can afford to send them to school and bring them to the academy.” He continued, “The ones who will become professionals spend most of their childhood playing football, with no input from coaches and teachers.” He went on to explain that the professional clubs didn’t need to do much in the way of training or developing them, the work has already been done by the children themselves. The environment in which they live has provided the setting whereby football is the only way for them to stay off the scrapheap.
Affluent Brazilian families are unlikely to produce professional players?
For me the most valuable experience was the opportunity to observe the sessions from the professional players at Zico’s academy. Being able to absorb the experiences of Coaches who had worked with Brazil’s National, and top club teams such as Botafogo, Fluminese and Flamengo was very educational….
The Maracano Stadium; Brazil’s ‘spiritual home of football’ (before its renovations).