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Indigenous Brazilian football: Originating from the jungle but not adopted by Brazilians

16. May 2024
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Discover the story of the indigenous Brazilian "football" played in the jungle by the Pareci tribe, which never gained widespread popularity among Brazilians.

Football arrived in Brazil, as in all other countries worldwide, from Great Britain. At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, it spread to all major cities and soon became the most popular sport in the largest South American country. By the 1920s, it was already a national obsession. From this period comes the story of an indigenous Brazilian sport played by the Amazonian Indians.   

The Pareci tribe, which still lives in the rainforests of Brazil's Mato Grosso state and numbers about 2,000 people, played a game called zicunati long before football arrived in Brazil. They made balls from rubber and used them for their indigenous game. Two teams participated, and players could only touch the ball with their heads, passing it among themselves with the goal of preventing the opposing team from returning the ball.   

The first foreigner to describe zicunati was the German ethnologist Max Schmidt, who visited the Pareci in the early 20th century. "The game has no ceremonial significance, it is purely a sport," he recorded in his notes. In 1913, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Pareci during a scientific expedition to the Brazilian jungle. He was fascinated by the indigenous game and dubbed it "headball."   

News of the indigenous football reached Rio de Janeiro and sparked great interest. Newspapers suggested that the Pareci should be invited to Rio to showcase their game to the wider world. About a decade later, in late 1922, this idea came to fruition.   

Sixteen Pareci Indians, led by government representative Rubens Velloso Higins, traveled 1,200 km from their village in the heart of the rainforest to the then Brazilian capital on the Atlantic coast. The event garnered significant media attention. The football club Fluminense, an eight-time champion of Rio de Janeiro at the time, offered their Laranjeiras stadium, which had been built recently in 1919. With a capacity of 25,000 spectators, it was the largest in the city at the time.   

The Indians camped on the stadium grounds, setting up tents on the field. Newspapers ensured there was enormous interest from the sports public. The demonstration match was held on a Sunday afternoon, like any important football match. The stadium was packed. Fourteen Pareci players took to the field, seven on each side.   

One team wore white football kits, and the other blue. The teams stood on opposite sides of the midfield line and began passing the ball with their heads. Each time a team failed to return the ball, the other team scored a point. The game was highly dynamic, with players jumping, running, and diving for the ball, impressing the audience with their speed and agility. Once the spectators understood the rules, they started cheering loudly, which confused the indigenous players.   

Newspaper reports of the match used football terminology to describe the events. After two 30-minute halves, the team in white defeated the blue team 31-20. The newspaper O Imparcial published an interview with the Pareci chief Coloisoresse on its front page the next day.   

When asked if they were tired after the match, he replied: "No. That was nothing. It only lasted an hour. At home, we play zicunati every morning from five to eleven and in the afternoon from one to five. Today was a strange day for us. All these shoes, shirts, and shorts—they just distracted us! Even the grass is annoying because it’s slippery. At home, we have large zicunati fields completely without grass."   

Despite the significant media attention and overshadowing football for a few days, the indigenous Brazilian game did not replace the imported English one. The Pareci returned to their jungle, where they still make rubber balls and play their game, while Brazilians remain obsessed with football, which has the status of a national obsession.
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