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New kind of football in the land of Pele as NFL booms in Brazil

Brazil, a country of 203 million people, is now the NFL’s second-biggest international market, after Mexico, with 38 million fans.

An American football player holds the ball during a training session of the Rio Football Academy team inside the luxury condominium Peninsula, located at the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on January 24, 2024
An American football player holds the ball during a training session of the Rio Football Academy team inside the luxury condominium Peninsula, located at the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on January 24, 2024 - Copyright AFP MAURO PIMENTEL
An American football player holds the ball during a training session of the Rio Football Academy team inside the luxury condominium Peninsula, located at the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on January 24, 2024 - Copyright AFP MAURO PIMENTEL
Joshua Howat Berger

Screaming and gesturing at the TV in his San Francisco 49ers jersey and scarf, Brazilian computer programmer Carlos Marins wills his team to come from behind and make it to the Super Bowl.

He is not an uprooted expatriate watching the NFL playoffs in the United States. This is a bar in tropical Brazil, the land of Neymar, Ronaldo and Pele, where another football — the American kind — is booming.

“Three Super Bowls ago, I watched the game with my brother. Two Super Bowls ago, I watched with my brother, my fiancee and some friends. Today, I’m watching with all these people,” says Marins, 28, looking around the packed Rio de Janeiro bar, whose four big-screen TVs are showing San Francisco’s down-to-the-wire playoff game against the Green Bay Packers.

American football, he says, is “growing right before our eyes” in Brazil, where millions are expected to watch the 49ers play the Super Bowl Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs (Taylor Swift’s boyfriend’s team, for the uninitiated).

“I might be one of the crazy ones making it grow. I scream, I make noise… I like getting everyone I know to love American football,” adds Marins, who says he picked the 49ers as his team because he liked their former quarterback, the Black-rights activist Colin Kaepernick.

Brazil, a country of 203 million people, is now the NFL’s second-biggest international market, after Mexico, with 38 million fans — more than 20 percent of them “avid fans,” according to a study commissioned by the league.

That is up from three million fans in 2015.

Now the league is returning the love: it will hold its first-ever game in Brazil next season, with Sao Paulo joining London and Munich on the NFL’s international calendar.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Monday the Philadelphia Eagles will play their season opener against a yet-to-be-decided team on September 6 at Sao Paulo’s Corinthians Arena.

Marins’s twin brother and fellow superfan Caio says he has already booked vacation time to travel there.

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” he told AFP.

– ‘Mr Gisele Bundchen’ –

How did American football, a sport considered impossible to understand in much of the world, gain a following in the land of the “beautiful game?”

Pedro Rego Monteiro, chief executive of the NFL’s marketing agency in Brazil, Effect Sport, offers various reasons for the exponential growth.

A partial list: Brazilians love American culture, including off-the-field Americana like tailgate parties and Super Bowl ads; the playoffs fall during the sports void of the Brazilian football league’s off-season; and the NFL has worked hard on marketing.

Then there is the impact of the man long known in Brazil as “Mr Gisele Bundchen”: Tom Brady, the legendary quarterback who won a record seven Super Bowls between 2002 and 2021 and was formerly married to the Brazilian supermodel.

Thanks largely to Bundchen, “fandom grew absurdly” in Brazil for Brady and his longtime team, the New England Patriots, says Monteiro.

– Footballer exodus –

Cristiane Kajiwara, the president of the Brazilian American Football Confederation (CBFA), has another explanation for what she calls “NFL fever”: the exodus of Brazil’s top football stars to more lucrative leagues overseas.

“That has created an opening for other sports,” she told AFP.

Growing numbers of Brazilians are learning to play American football, too.

Training in the rain in helmet and pads with his amateur team, the Rio Football Academy, linebacker Gabriel Stutz says he would love the chance to play professionally in Brazil one day.

“It’s every kid’s dream,” says the 24-year-old army lieutenant and psychology student.

There are some 300 American football teams in Brazil, between traditional and flag football. The CBFA, founded in 2000, organizes regional and national championships.

Flag football’s inclusion as an Olympic sport for the 2028 Games in Los Angeles has further boosted the game, says Kajiwara.

The Brazilian women’s flag football team is currently ranked fourth in the world.

Still, backers are realistic about how big the boom can get.

“Are we going to have more Brazilian NFL fans than football fans someday? Probably not,” says Monteiro.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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