In a country of over 2 million players photographer Simon Di Principe explores the cradle of Brazilian football, Várzea, through the people, the teams and the pitches that make it.
On the abandoned floodplains, where the land meets the river’s edge, marks the territory where Brazil’s footballing legacy was born. Taking its name from the brick-red lowlands the games are played out on, ‘Várzea’ football exists outside the sanitised culture of stadium football. Passionate, political and unpredictable, Futebol de Várzea is the beating heart of the ‘beautiful game’. Along the fringes of the dusty pitch, families and fans gather, setting up plastic lawn chairs for a day of drinking cold beer, eating baked potatoes and watching football. The Várzea playing fields exist not only as training sites for the country’s brightest talent, they have evolved to become vibrant social spaces for communities and a welcome refuge for those looking for a place to belong. Following the recent release of his book “Várzea’ we sat down with the photographer, Simon Di Principe, to discuss the religiosity, culture and community spirit fostered by the game.
To Live & Die
Unity, Passion & Belonging
In Portuguese “Várzea” is also a term that is used to describe anything that is precarious, disorganised or off the cuff. The football scholars, Raphael Piva and Raphael Rajão, explain, “’ what a Várzea…’ can also mean what a mess!”. Much like the style of play, that celebrates off-the-cuff spontaneity, flair, and a daring creativity, the way the games come together is also perfectly captured by this phrase. Matches are organised over strings of Whatsapp threads and tip offs in a beautifully disorganised, last minute way that Principe explains is typical of Brazil.
Miles away from the sleek, high-grossing world of professional football on television sets around the globe, Principe was transported back to a time in his youth when football was a grassroots religion. Principe recalls, “working class fans in Brazil reminded me of a bygone era in the UK when working class people attended football matches en mass and owned the atmosphere.” Watching from the sidelines, grown men fall to their knees in prayer both before and after the matches praying for victory. During a match between older, slightly heavier players, Principe recalls turning to his friend and saying, “Oh god these guys are so unfit! They could die on the pitch!”. To which his friend replied, “to die on the pitch is an honour, there was a guy who died last year.” In Brazil, football is more than a religion, it is life. To prove how deep the passion runs, Principe points out one of the players he photographed in Bello Horizonte, “this guy was let out of prison for three hours to play in goal and then he had to get back to prison. Someone said he was in for drugs charges but, they basically let him out for one game.”
There is nothing better than Várzea to create change both athletically and politically.
Léo Oliveira, a contributor to Principe’s book, makes a case for the game as a powerful tool for the betterment of Brazilian society. In Brazil, where over 60,000 people are brutally murdered each year, the Várzea pitches help keep the younger generation out of gangs and off the streets. Teams become surrogate families to those who have been robbed of theirs, and coaches make an effort to teach their players the basics of citizenship. Functioning like a wildly disorganised extended family, everyone pitches in to help organise festive celebrations, out-of-school activities and physical education for school children. Where the government has failed to cultivate social initiatives, Várzea fills in the gaps. He explains, “Whilst I do not survive financially from Várzea football, I do get my physical and psychological strength from it”.
In a country that has been transformed by mass immigration and urbanisation, the Várzea pitches have played a huge role in integration and the enforcement of local identity. Stripped of the big ticket prices and regulations of world cup stadiums, these shared spaces offer welcome relief and a chance to socialize stripped of hierarchy, sharing a passion and purpose.
Big Dreams & Beauty Queens
Looking to the Future
During our conversation, Principe draws attention to a picture of a gay referee from a match in Belo Horizonte and a female linesperson. Both unusual in Premiership football. Pointing out a young woman holding a flag, he explains, “this is an important picture for me, a woman in football in Brazil – it’s a big thing. It’s very much a country where men are “men”; they drink beer, they eat meat so, when I saw a woman linesman I knew it was interesting”.
The sport itself has evolved and developed, branching into local dialects and translations. Located deep in the Amazonian rainforest, the Peladão’ is one of the largest and most peculiar Várzea matches in the world. Principe explains, “each team has a beauty queen, and the team progresses to the next stage based on the beauty queen’s victory”. Part football tournament, part beauty pageant, the Peladão sees the city of Manaus flooded with thousands of amateur teams and their beauty queens chasing the trophy. Just as the teams compete, their representative beauty queens pose, primp and perform for the title ‘Queen of the Peladão’. Victory for either party ensuring their rise to the cup.
For a country that is notorious for its machismo, Principe’s captured a more inclusive side of the Brazilian culture played out on the pitch.
A CONVERSATION WITH PHOTOGRAPHER SIMON DI PRINCIPE
Although a keen football fan myself, it’s not a book about football necessarily, it’s a social documentation of these areas and the people involved in it.
Initially I had no connections at all, my idea was to go to somewhere where I thought was the home of football, and I tried to track down various people, which just didn’t happen at all. The way that Brazilian people are, they’re very accommodating, they’ll say something, but they won’t neccessarily follow through. So there was a chaotic nature to it all, it probably took me 4 or 5 weeks of being in Brazil and then suddenly I knew someone.
I was in Brazil in total for 6 or 7 months, starting at the bottom and working my way round, with a camera, a rucksack and 80 rolls of film. Everything is shot on film, so 800 pictures… I became immersed in the world of Várzea, I met the beauty queens, veterans and felons that keep the game alive and kicking. It’s very we live for football, we die for football, it’s very passionate.
For me, there was a nostalgia to the project. Brazil is a country of immigrants, Várzea tells us about the countries history and people. As the son of a Italian immigrant who came to London at 17 to escape conscription, football was my Dad’s way of connecting. He couldn’t speak the language and he was incredibly lonely, finding an Italian football team was how he integrated. So for me, it’s about different cultures, different nationalities coming together.