What Super Bowl? The action's down in Rio

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For Danilo Mendes, a third-year law student, it was a typical day on scenic Copacabana Beach except for a weird spectacle: Two teams of 11 men each were periodically knocking each other down into the sand.

"I know it is American football," said Mr. Mendes as he sipped coconut juice and listened to a samba band nearby. "I've seen it in the movies."

As Mendes looked on, the teams ran sloppy draw plays, threw wobbly Hail Mary passes, and kicked extra points between goalposts. Without helmets, shoulder pads, or cleats, they played in T-shirts, shorts, many with bare feet.

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For Robert Lee Segal, a district attorney and founder of the Rio Guardians, tackle football on Copacabana beach has become a tradition since 1992. According to Mr. Segal, whose father was born in New Orleans, most players are sons of Americans, former US residents, or graduates of a free football clinic run by Mel Owens, a former Los Angeles (now St. Louis) Rams linebacker.

For the past three years, Mr. Owens's "Let's Play" workshops on Rio beaches have attracted hundreds of men and some women as participants and such sponsors as American Airlines, ESPN, and TVA, a Brazilian cable television company.

The 6 ft., 4 in., 235-pound Owens is a muscular Don Quixote on a quest to promote an American export that few Brazilians understand. In fact, most people here have no idea - nor do they care - that Super Bowl XXXIII takes place Sunday in Miami.

"American football is not a crazy sport like most Brazilians think," says Mr. Segal. "It's a game with rules."

Owens dreams of explaining those rules in permanent workshops and persuading local corporations to sponsor an NFL exhibition match in Maracan stadium, the world's largest soccer facility.

In fact, he is so intent on establishing a football beachhead in this tropical metropolis of 6 million inhabitants, that he has taken Berlitz classes in Portuguese while earning a law degree at the University of San Francisco and running unsuccessfully for a city council seat in Laguna Beach, Calif.

'We need to talk'

Although Owens is not an official emissary of the NFL, his expansionist visi#on fits right in with the organization's strategy, says Pete Abitante, NFL international public affairs director. "I heard he was down there," he said. "We need to talk."

The NFL has long promoted football outside its borders.

In the early 1990s, the short-lived World League of American Football was the first league to operate on a weekly basis on two separate continents - Europe and North America.

In past years, exhibition matches have been played in London, Tokyo, Berlin,# Barcelona, Vancouver, Toronto, Dublin, and Mexico City, the latter attracting the largest crowd ever to watch an NFL game - 112,376 to see a 1994 pre-season game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Oilers.

'A lot of interest in Argentina'

Mr. Abitante says his office is now studying plans to send teams to Australia, China, and Argentina. "China is an intriguing country and there seems to be a lot of interest in Argentina."

Owens, who played professional football between 1981 and 1991, is well aware that it won't #be easy to siphon Brazilian fans away from their national passion - futebol, or real football as some Brazilians would say.

To understand the nation's zeal for soccer, one must visit the country during the World Cup. Each time Brazil plays a match, streets are nearly empty, banks and stock markets close, schools let out early, and city buildings are adorned with the nation's colors of yellow and green.

"Soccer is like a religion, but there is a lot of American culture here, and Brazilians will accept football," says Jos Martins, Owen's Rio business partner. "It can work if we market it as a spectacle like Holiday on Ice."

Mr. Martins, a former professional soccer player who once lived in northern California, equates American football in Brazil with soccer in the United States in the early 1970s. US soccer, he argues, took off only after #name stars like Brazil's Pele arrived to play with professional teams.

And even if Brazilian interest in football remains low, Owens and Martins say, there is plenty of money to be made in licensing merchandise. Pirated T-shirts, jerseys, and caps emblazoned with NFL team logos are commonly sold by Rio street venders.

"They charge $20 for a fake jersey. We could sell the real thing for $15," says Owens. "Bes#ides, sports merchandise sales have plateaued in the United States and the market needs to expand."

Owens believes the catalyst for winning football converts will be cable television, introduced in Brazil in 1991. During this past NFL season, ESPN International showed weekly Sunday and Monday night games with Portuguese- language announcers.

"With the advent of cable television, there will be fans," says Owens after showing the Rio Guardians on the beach the artistry of a well-thrown forward pass.#

NFL's Abitante agrees. "Television is the engine that spreads our sport."

In the next millennium, Owens envisions American football being played in every corner of the globe. "Once an airplane is invented that flies at hyperspeeds, it will be feasible for European teams in London and Berlin to play teams in Rio, Buenos Aires, and Santiago," he predicts.

Testing the waters

In the meantime, Owens says he is willing to test the waters by first sponsoring a match between US arena football teams - eight-member teams playing on fields half the length of regular football. It# would be considerably less costly than the estimated $1 million needed to bring down two NFL teams, the match could be played in an impromptu stadium built on Copacabana Beach.

For law student Mendes, however, it makes no difference whether Rio hosts arena or NFL football teams.

"It will attract first time curiosity seekers, but I doubt people will go back repeatedly," he said. "It's a sport that will never capture our hearts like futebol."

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