Words: Sam Diss
Images: Sam Diss / Red Bull
Seven young men in matching sweatshirts with matching moustaches and matching, oiled, shoulder length hair, shield their eyes from the glare of floodlights that illuminate the purple sky. They are frantically shaking their heads no. It’s been a long day.
After their game versus Ukrainian side Kvadr, the Maldives champions Club Teenage have won over the spectators with their fast and frantic play, even if they didn’t win their match.
“Any of you speak English?” I ask.
No, no, no, no, no, no, they signal. No.
I smile and accept their conciliatory fist bumps while sliding away my phone’s voice note app, its battery steadily tripping down the percentiles due to heavy use. I fall into line next to them as we silently watch on as another two teams battle it out in front of us. A lot is said of football’s place as a Universal Language—one that spans every culture, class, and creed—and I was here, in the schizophrenic Brazilian winter, in a Neymar-funded soccer institute on the edges of a Praia Grande favela, to see if it was really true.
Smog drifts over the city of Santos, covering everything in yellow-white gauze. The sky has turned from a total blue to a hazy linen in the time it takes to get from the fourteenth floor to the foyer. I drift from the hotel and towards Gonzaga beach, where even on a Thursday morning hundreds of salt-blasted locals play football on the wide stretches of perfect sand.
A ball rolls near me—near enough for me to run to it—but I miss my chance, and it’s picked up by a young man in board shorts with long, brown curls, who heads back to the circle of friends he’s just left. They play keepy-uppy like you and I play keepy-uppy—in a circle, jeering and yelping with each strike—but, unlike us, their touch is warm and controlled, their bare feet cushioning each knock back up into the air ready for the next person in the queue, effortless. God knows whose miscontrol lead the ball to land anywhere near me because you can’t pick out any of them: men and women stand next to each other, some shirtless, some not, and do the things Brazilians do, the things you can’t help but feel like they were put on this earth to do.
I look right, towards São Vicente—still just about visible along the beach despite the fog, which lingers now twenty feet up, like the separated layer of a trifle—and see swarms of colour, excitement. I walk towards them and… that’s a Denmark kit, isn’t it? Then another and another. They whip their shirts off, and they’ve all got six-packs and blonde hair and are playing an intense game of two v two on the beach with a red plastic-coated football. Their touches, too, are fantastic but different: they play in a different dialect to the keepy-uppy-ers, different even to the locals who play small-sided games by the breaking surf. They move with power and purpose, driving through the sand as they move instead of seemingly floating just above the dunes, as the Brazilians do.
And there are the English, quietly standing to the side, and there’s English women’s team, getting stuck into a game of fives against the French men’s team, while the Bosnian men’s team play crossbar against beach goals and the Italian women’s team stroll past on their way to get some food.
As I head back towards the hotel, I hear the Tunisian lads singing, doing kick-ups in flip-flops, the Red Tigers grabbing each other by the face and staring into each other’s eyes as they wave flags. There go Mexico’s Deportivo Mago, in sombreros and yellow shirts, hair slicked and parted, and the Chilean women, Las Guerreras, dancing through the crowd as the country’s men’s team, Los N.N, walk menacingly behind them towards the glass-and-metal amphitheatre where the draw for the first day’s games will take place. The Kenyan representatives, Lions, make a ruckus when they arrive, Wakanda Forever-ing and drawing a buzz as one or two of them fall over laughing. The French women, Caméléons, are cold as ice and Fúria da Bola, the Angolan men’s team, bring portable speakers banging out Kuduro. Pakistan’s Raw Talent guys are vibrating with excitement, barely containable, grins splitting faces in two. Colombia’s Bogotá DC are all mirrored shades and scowls, and the skin of the Danes is cracked and sore, every member of team Seeded 1 sunburnt in the half-hour since I last saw them. The Indian team wear wavy purple and pink shirts with their team name—Joga Bonito—emblazoned on the front and Atlant from Kazakhstan are in matching backwards caps and vests. Malaysia’s representatives Hyperrich turn up just in time, in jubilant, celebratory mood, and L'Equipe des Chicas, the Belgian women’s side, wrapped in a Domino’s-branded Belgium flag and their captain keeps setting fire to her all-access wristband with a small plastic lighter. Finally, the Brazilian teams turn up in leather jackets—the men, Ginga Street, and the women, Resenha 013—casually swaying with the wind as they navigate the commotion, eyes of everyone focussed solely on them. It’s like that bit at the start of The Warriors, with all of New York’s gangs meeting in one place, only instead of low-level street crime, everyone here is just excellent at football. Right now, nobody is wasting nobody.
“You are all the best the world,” says the MC on the amphitheatre’s stage at the start of proceedings, where the first day’s groups are decided by a giant Perspex version of a seaside penny drop game. There are loud cheers because, at this moment, it’s very hard for anyone to prove the MC’s claim isn’t true. Sixty countries are represented on (or very near) this stretch of beach, as many of the world’s best five-a-side teams descend on São Paulo to play in the finals of Neymar Jr’s Five, a variant of futsal designed to separate the very best from the very tired and nutmegged.
The aim of the NJF game is simple: score more than your opponent in ten minutes. But then it gets… not so simple: for each goal you concede, you lose a player. That means if a team is 4–0 up, there are five of them and only one of you, forcing you into a demoralising game of possession that has you begging to concede so as to put you out of your misery. It becomes a matter who scores first taking control, the physical and psychological aspects of the game given near equal weight. The football played is often suicidally fast and always on the floor, futsal over football, all of it with the sole of your foot and the toe of your trainer. “Street football,” is how one player describes it to me, as we talk near the large bunker where players spend their downtime, drinking iced tea and eating tangerines while sat on bean bags. “This is how we grew up playing.”
And maybe this is true for them, but it resembles no street football I ever grew up with, where you got the ball and ran as fast as you could in no discernable direction while forty children ran like crazy at you to hack at your limbs. But these players are different, though. At this complex dedicated to football—all steel-and-wood bleachers, fresh concrete, and pristine artificial turf; three pitches, a warm down area, media tent, a massage area, areas for XBOX and for haircuts, where Gillette will carve your scalp into one of six Neymar-inspired looks—each side is there after winning a tournament in their home country against other very good players on very good teams. They’re all six-foot and under, without a scrap of fat on any of them—I mean, besides the German team, who look not dissimilar to Tyson Fury in off-season—and they run and run and run and run. They all have skill in fundamentals and flair and balance to spare and keep playing with a kind of manic concentration. And many have distinct styles, too: England’s women’s champs The Eagles play with a rock at the back like a goalkeeper and build from there, as do Kenya, who call their stopper okpom, meaning stone. UAE’s Al-Rijab play five minutes attack and five minutes defence and have been practising 1 v 1s like crazy—which is what happens when a match ends as a draw—and keep undoing their unsuspecting opponents. “While others panic when the match is a draw,” says one UAE player, “we do not.” South Africa’s Football Flava play fast and aggressive until they get a few goals ahead and then out comes the diski: a series of increasingly elaborate dances around the ball that have little in-game use besides a kind of on-pitch celebration before the final whistle has blown. Japan’s women’s team, Ciencia, play an intricate, mobile game tight to classic university-style futsal whereas Brazil’s men play like the Monstars from Space Jam, expressive and expansive, and look unbeatable, their key player Kelwin nutmegging players and dunking on fools to the weak-kneed plaudits of his fawning, Instagram Story-ing audience. And in all the games, unlike in Britain, where the defining characteristic of small-sided football is aggro, there is an almost polite, collegiate air to the group stages.
“Wasn’t fucking expecting any of that,” says Jacob, a player for Australia’s Melbourne Street Crew, who play a style best described as ‘combative’. “That’s not how we play in Melbourne, either. Like, we’ll kick ya. And I almost don’t want to kick any of these guys.”
There is a mutual respect between people who are Very Good At Football. It is a world of real recognise real—players recognising the touch and control of a fellow player. You can imagine the shudder of politeness first then frustration if the average person was in there, the ball ricocheting off their instep, the ball bobbling off their knees. But here there is a communal air, one of safety: everyone here can play. In this, day one of two, they are among their own.
“When our team qualified and we found out we were heading to Brazil, I immediately put the holiday dates straight into the work calendar,” says Bradley, the standout player for English men’s champions Slough Scorpionz, who works on the railways. He talks as we watch India’s Joga Bonito play head tennis to keep loose between matches. “I think they all understood that I wouldn’t be missing this.”
While colleagues may understand what it means for the person they work with to be flown halfway across the world to do something they’re brilliant at, it doesn’t mean that the player has been any good at articulating it. “Everything” is the word I hear again and again when I ask what it means to be here with the best of the rest, the best outside the pro-ranks. “It means everything.”
Most of the players here are ex-pros, ex-academy, stepping down from paid ranks to live in your mortal realm, making them even scarier somehow, as if this Wednesday evening, at the five-a-side game you’ve been waiting for all week, might be the day you face up against them and can’t even get close and get your night absolutely ruined. You might as well have burnt the fiver you paid for entry. But what that level of skill can sometimes lead to—something you’ll have seen all too often in post-match interviews—is what can be a stunning lack of ability to express why it is they’re good at this one thing they’re brilliant at. They just are. They just do. They work hard because that’s how they achieve the thing they’re there to achieve. The best move and adapt on the fly, their work on the pitch a flowchart streaming in front of them like the conveyor belt of button-mashes in Guitar Hero, without stopping to think about big questions like Why am I here?
Here, in Brazil, surrounded by players from almost a third of all the world’s countries, it’s evident that, while the styles may change, the grammar of football is the same: it transcends. After a disappointing loss, Scorpionz are consoled by Slovakia’s very strong Atletico Trnava, a terrifying-looking side who put arms around their opponents, before literally picking some of the players up without saying a word, getting them all to pose together in a team shot by a luridly graffitied wall. Later in the day, to qualify through a tough group, the England women’s team need France to beat Australia. The players watch on from a huddle in the stands, hands clasped together in front of their faces in hope, praying for a French goal. And then they get it, in the last minute. The French scorer, knowing what it means, turns and waves to her rivals in the stands, who’re now on their feet cheering. They’ll both be qualifying together.
While some of the other games are mismatched clashes ending 5–0, they are played with the spirit of a seasoned pro working their way past a young shaver at a tennis Open: meeting at the net, a stroke of the hair, an often wordless whisper of condolence in the ear. You’ll get there soon… Next year will be yours… You’ll take this experience and come back stronger…
And then, on the second day, it went mental.
One of the Angolan players is chasing the referee around the compound, ducking between assorted media and cameramen, fans and players. Aggrieved at some unhelpful decisions by the local Brazilian referee, the players of Fúria da Bola surrounded him on the pitch. Anarchy descends quickly—accelerated by fatigue, heat, and can after carbonated can of guaraná-flavoured caffeine, taurine, sucrose and glucose, B-group vitamins, and alpine spring water screaming through their veins—and the referee, a middle-aged man in full uniform, backs away from the apoplectic players held back by their opponents Football Flava, who’ve just nicked a very tight 1–0. I’ve got no idea what the players have said to the ref, but the man in black has changed tack, on the balls of his feet now, and is walking to meet his aggressors head on. Portuguese is a beautiful, lyrical language, fun and bouncy until it’s scary as fuck and you have no idea what’s going on and a referee is about to fight five young men in the centre circle. The tide of the exchange goes back and forth, until it leads, inevitably, to Furia and the ref Benny Hill-ing around the place before security staff finally step in. Now the knockout stages are here, the we’re all mates here philosophy is long gone. Everyone has lost their shit.
Both of England’s teams end their run in tournament with arguments and infighting, Angola have spectacularly gone to pieces, Australia flame out without getting a chance to kick anyone, and Italy get a red card in their first game to decide the 1 v 1 after a tetchy stalemate with Slovakia. A sub from Russia men’s team Predators storms the pitch during a 4–1 loss to Peru to punch an opponent flush in the face, sending him crashing to the floor. Even Kenya, until now everyone’s second team, a team who won their group at a canter, with smiles and songs and words of wisdom and group hugs galore, with attacking football and tenacious tackling, have their feathers ruffled after a disappointing 5–0 shellacking at the hands of South Africa.
“Are you okay, lads?” I ask, as they sit, exhausted, in the shade of the stand. I join them on the floor as one of the players kneels and presses his forehead to the cool concrete, crying.
“No,” replies the player between sobs.
“But you played really well up until now...” I say, trying to break the silence, trying to rouse this team of players I have just met and feel genuinely gutted for. “All the way from Nairobi to here. That means something, surely?”
“It means nothing,” says another player. “Nothing.”
“The one that beats you up most is yourself,” says the captain of TC Broders from the United States, later, as we stand watching Brazil v Colombia, the American wistfully alone as the rest of his team have disappeared to the confines of the player’s area, sticking to sullenly playing PES on the promotional screens instead of supporting the other teams left standing.
Brazil’s march to the final has been nothing short of impressive so far: twenty-two goals for and zero against. Inevitably, they are favourites to beat a Colombian side who are out to rough them up in front of the hundreds of Brazilian children bussed in from the local school, their excitement ratcheting up the tension, as they hope to finally see some Brazilian glory amid a summer of disappointment.
Apparently in awe at coming up against the home teams, nobody has been able to get close to Brazil, legally or illegally. But—as any anyone who watched their World Cup match against England can attest—the Colombians do not mess around: every Brazilian back-heel is met with a Colombian shoulder barge, and they storm around the pitch getting in the faces of the most skilful players I’ve ever seen, and, after a few minutes, Brazil concede. It is the first goal to squirm past their defence, and there is a vacuum of silence around the pitch. The pace quickens as more and more spectators flock to the hoardings, snapped from the bitter fugue that relegated them to lying down on their backs and looking up at the clouds. Now tackles fly in on both sides, the Belgian referee letting a lot go as long as the violence stays evened out. Kelwin Soares—the star—is the first to break. A Colombian player tries to grab hold of his shirt after a particularly egregious chain of shithousery ends with three of the match’s ten players on the pitch on the deck and… I guess I’ll let Kelwin tell you what happens next, via the chosen medium of sportsman of his era, the thrown-together Instagram apology:
"We knew that the only way we'd lose this tournament would be the referee not whistling anything, not for fouls or for teasing,” he writes. “I took to this with an ugly attitude. In the heat of the game, I lost my head. I saw my teammates taking hits and went to strike back. One player grabbed me, and I retaliated by punching him in his hands. I did this so he could take his hands off me. He made a scene, throwing himself to the floor as if I had hit him in the face. This was the referee's fault, but it was me being a hothead. I have cried a lot, for I ruined our dream…”
Player grabs him, and Kelwin slaps out. Player hits the deck, rolling like a good’un, and Kelwin gets a red for taking the bait. A red card counts as a goal here and, as the boos rain down from the children watching on, and the cheers float in from the Colombian contingent waving flags nearby, it’s 2–0 and, try as they might, Brazil cannot close the gap. The favourites are out in the quarterfinals. They’re stunned, stuck to the spot as the Colombians slump to their knees, because this is the real final, taking out the big dogs on their home pitch.
Assorted media and players look upon Brazil, the fallen gods, undoubtedly the most talented collection of players at this tournament, who slink home without the trophy they already thought was theirs. In the days and weeks that follow, each player will create their own highlight reel of skills and goals from the tournament with little mention of their teammates, each looking to own the narrative without ever mentioning the ending. There were plenty of goals, right? And interesting flicks. Plenty of them, too. Who cares that it ended in ignominy? It’s better than abjection. While shame burned their faces that night, everyone will remember them.
“Crimes can be redeemed,” the Mexican novelist Juan Villoro once wrote, “but nothing saves you from mediocrity”.
The men’s and women’s finals feel almost like an afterthought, as so often can happen in tournaments, even ones far more senior than this. Brazil’s women beat the strict discipline and stark eye make-up of Italy’s Futsal Fiorentina 1–0 after a 1 v 1 that ended in a cynical Italian foul and a red card that gifts Brazil the decisive goal and the trophy. More interesting was the game between Mexico’s Deportivo Mago and Argentina’s Narigas that ended 5–2 to Mexico, but the crowd was too lost to the dramatic glut that is two days solid of football, spent by forty-eight hours of emotion and physical hardship, turgid with a footy hangover.
That night in a club in Santos with what feels like a thousand other people, dancing to thudding music, drinking Tropical Red Bull and gin with abandon, and still, looking around, you see people with their heads bowed in disappointment. Even here, in literal paradise, surrounded by beautiful people glistened by the club’s lack of air-con, in one of the largest cities in the spiritual home of football, a place where you cannot move for the sheer, unrestrained joy of the game, the failure to win has meant everything to those players. While many teams who failed to win are here shaking off the shackles of their losses, those who remain weighed down by theirs are understood by everyone else: they nod to them, buy them drinks, offer them cigarettes. They slap their backs, pound their fists, smack their palms. They watch as they finally look away from the floor and move up to the pulsating lights, the whites of their eyes red with frustration. They know.
Football is the universal language and it speaks what we cannot say. Who doesn’t have a friend that transforms into a different person when they play, showing themselves a deep dark version of their id at its most aggressive or triumphant. Maybe that person is you. Football has the ability to present us as we are. It gives us permission to lay ourselves bare. From amateurs to semipros to football’s stars, we’ve each felt infinitesimal versions of the same success and heartbreak. As fans, we have all felt football on a cellular level, and to play the game is to take it one step further, forming a physical bond of sweat and shin pad meeting shin pad, this game that crosses generations and cultures and continents and classes. We are always encouraged to open up more to those around us. Is there any better way to get to know someone than to play football against them?