Rio 2016 Olympics / Sport / Work by Donna Bowater

The girls (and boys) from Ipanema: Now playing rugby like pros

Marcos Paixão did not have far to travel to represent Brazil in international beach rugby a week before Christmas.

Along with his brothers and sisters, 22-year-old Marcos lives in Cantagalo, a hillside favela that overlooks the golden coast of Ipanema, where the Beach Rugby Challenge took place.

A rising star, Marcos is one of a growing number of athletes to take up the sport, which will feature in the Olympics, in Rio in 2016, as rugby sevens, for the first time in almost a century. And despite rugby’s still being in its infancy in Brazil, Marcos has been playing for 10 years, away from the intense spotlight that rarely strays from football.

“I started playing through a friend who played first,” he said, spinning the oval ball in his hands. “When I first saw it, I thought it was violent, it’s really strong. But the following day, I played it, and I really liked it. I like the union, the respect, the discipline. It’s very different from football.

Powering down the left flank of the sand to score a try, Marcos showed his natural talent in the mini-tournament organized by the Brazilian Rugby Union with World Rugby. And after beating Brazil Barbarians, the Brazilian national side held favorites Italy to a draw before narrowly losing to neighbors Argentina, where rugby has been a popular mainstream sport since 2007.

As in Argentina, rugby was introduced to Brazil by British immigrants and remained a minority sport mostly played by foreigners or locals in private schools and clubs. While the two Latin American powerhouses remained close rivals in football, the nations diverged in rugby when Los Pumas came third in the 2007 World Cup.

“There was always around 40,000 registered players in Argentina, but after 2007, it went up like this to 100,000,” said Agustin Danza, the Argentinian CEO of the Brazilian Rugby Union. “Here in Brazil, it’s still a very unknown sport. But it’s growing very fast. It was nonexistent in 2010.”

He said there were now 60,000 Brazilians playing rugby, with 10,000 registered players. Brazil just needed its own 2007 moment, he added. “The main tool in making a sport popular is the results. In the meantime, we’re trying to get into as many schools as possible and at the same time working with the federations to have very well-structured, solid tournaments. The beach version of the game that will be played at the Olympics is also a way of attracting greater visibility.

Brazilian rugby

The men’s Brazil-Italy match at the Beach Rugby International tournament, Dec. 20.
Sergio Moraes / Reuters

Although Brazil’s men’s team may be playing catch-up with Argentina, the women’s team is well established and respected, reaching the top 10 in the world. Founded 10 years ago, the women’s team now has 20 players and is based in São Paulo.

In two showpiece matches during the Beach Rugby Challenge, the team defeated Argentina comfortably, having recently won the Dubai Rugby 7s bowl final. “We are a team to be reckoned with,” Danza said. “That’s mainly because women’s rugby began more or less at the same time in every country.”

Beatriz Futuro, 28, captain of the women’s side, said the Olympic Games were an opportunity to promote the sport and encourage more girls to play. “We have a lot fewer women playing rugby, but we’re on the right track,” she said. “There are two sides to growth, and the structure has to grow as well.”

Brazil’s men and women will automatically qualify for the 2016 games, but Futuro said the team wants to earn its place. “We’re not just guests,” she said. “I think the Olympics will really help spread rugby. I think it’s going to become much more popular because it’s a rich sport.”

Like several of the top Brazilian players, Futuro plays for Rio de Janeiro side Niteroi, one of the cities with a strong rugby tradition, thanks to British influences. Marcos plays for Rio Rugby, which evolved from Rio Cricket and was also influenced by the British presence in the city.

Since Brazil began embracing rugby, the number of clubs has grown from 50 to 390, with representation in every Brazilian state. “It’s seen a huge growth,” said Justin Thornycroft, of the Rio Rugby Foundation, who played for Brazil Barbarians at the Beach Rugby Challenge. “And what’s growing a lot are the social projects. There’s one in Cantagalo favela, there are two in Rocinha. In an environment where there’s a lack of discipline and a lack of team sports, rugby brings them a family and team objectives.”

Such social projects have ensured that grass-roots rugby is more inclusive than in many other countries, where it remains a middle-class tradition. “That’s the beauty of rugby here in Brazil,” Danza said. “It’s a very mixed sport, open to everybody, and that’s the way it should be.”

In turn, rugby has become a family affair for Marcos. He faced his brother Maxwilliam on the pitch when Brazil played Brazil Barbarians, a composite side featuring players from all over Rio. “I was worried about injuring him,” Marcos said afterward. “But he played well. It was good.”

In the stands, along with curious spectators, were Marcos’ family and friends from Cantagalo hill. “There is not much of a rugby presence in Cantagalo. Just me and my brothers representing the community,” he added. “This event was very good to promote the sport in Rio. My sister, my cousins were here, my wife, and my daughter was watching her first match. I’m satisfied. The whole team played well. The event was just happiness.”

Originally published by Al Jazeera America

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