What Super Bowl? The action's down in Rio
RIO DE JANEIRO
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"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.
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."