x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Footloose in Rio

Foodies and football fans are in for a treat if they make the long journey to Brazil this World Cup season, despite occasional weather and technology snags.

Children playing on the small football pitch in the favela of Santa Marta in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Bob Thomas / Popperfoto / Getty Images)
Children playing on the small football pitch in the favela of Santa Marta in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Bob Thomas / Popperfoto / Getty Images)

Saturday night at the Estádio do Maracanã, the setting for this summer’s World Cup final. The stadium may be only half full, but I’m sure the people outside can hear the chanting. It’s a crucial match for last season’s champions, Fluminense FC. After a terrible start to the season, the Rio de Janeiro team find themselves in the Serie A relegation zone. They need to win this match. They’re 2-1 up against Clube Atlético Mineiro, until a late equaliser. Despite the disappointment, the singing on both sides continues as the crowds flood out into the torrential rain of this northern Rio suburb.

In June, there will be thousands more football fans in Rio, and across Brazil, as the World Cup kicks off. Football is everywhere in this sport-crazed city and it’s easy to get involved, not just as a spectator, but also as a player.

The top of a hill overlooking the Copacabana Beach is the setting for what must be one of the most dramatically located football pitches in the world. The view from the top of the Santa Marta favela is framed by Sugarloaf Mountain, Christ the Redeemer (the iconic Jesus statue that dominates the city), the sea and the forest.

I sign up for an afternoon match in the hole-ridden “stadium” in the favela of Santa Marta. It’s the blue team against the yellows. The 10-year-olds at this football school have talent that could put a lower division English team to shame. A girl in the Number 1 shirt is the yellows’ star player. She skips over a hole in the pitch as she makes a run for goal. But she’s tripped up inside the box. The whistle blows. Penalty. She misses and falls to the floor, her head in her hands.

Until recently, 47-year-old José Luiz Oliveira was the school’s full-time coach. But when the government money dried up, the training ground to a halt. The kids wouldn’t take no for an answer; they begged him to keep teaching them.

The former Dutch player Mark Koelen heard about what was happening and came up with a novel idea. Run football tours to get tourists into the favela and feed some of that cash back into the local community. Koelen charges from €75 (Dh380) for an afternoon in Santa Marta. He arranges a football match (tourists versus the kids of Santa Marta), and then a barbecue in one of the locals’ houses. He’s even managed to sign up foreign businesses based in Rio: they use a favela football match as a team-bonding exercise.

Koelen claims a couple of thousand dollars has made its way into the Santa Marta favela in the two years that he’s been running the tours.

“Tourists are coming [to Rio], they watch the football [in the stadiums], but you see the state of this pitch here,” he says. “Things aren’t coming back into the community. This is the reality, the World Cup is coming and José is asking me for footballs.” While the coach is keen to get more visitors into the favela for financial reasons, the kids just want new opponents to beat.

“Brazilians are crazy about football,” Koelen says. “If I lose control of the ball in the street and a woman is passing, she won’t just pick it up, she’ll tap it, bounce it on her foot and then pass it back. Everyone knows how to play.”

Playing football in Santa Marta is a unique tourist experience. Rio de Janeiro is a city of hills, steep hills that were difficult to build on and unattractive to property developers. This cheap land across the city centre attracted less wealthy Brazilians, who were moving to Rio in search of work. The hillside shanty towns known as favelas quickly became notorious as centres of crime.

Until recently, the favelas were too dangerous even for the police. But with the World Cup approaching, Brazil’s special forces started a controversial favela-by-favela pacification programme. They swept in, kicked out the gangs and installed police stations at the top of the hills.

The pacifications inspired a film called Elite Squad; the sequel, Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within, went on to become Brazil’s biggest ever box-office hit, and propelled the director José Padilha to Hollywood.

Santa Marta was the first favela to be pacified, and as testament to how effective the clear-out has been, a boutique hotel is expected to open at the very top of this favela, potentially displacing locals, but bringing in more tourist cash.

Until that hotel opens, most of the foreigners in Santa Marta are visitors brought in on favela tours, and Koelen is keen to avoid the insensitivity of “slum tourism”, where residents are treated like zoo animals to be photographed but kept at arm’s length. “I don’t want people to feel like they’re seeing monkeys.” Koelen says it’s vital for hosts and visitors to interact, using football as their shared language. “If you play, you’re mates straight away,” he says. “We take people into a house and a woman cooks for them and tells them stories. They buy souvenirs here instead of on Copacabana.”

It’s not just football and food that are drawing tourists into Santa Marta. The Dutch art duo Haas and Hahn have spent almost 10 years brightening up Rio’s favelas, and one of their boldest works is in Santa Marta. Almost every building in the town square is covered in rainbow- coloured paint. Last year, the pair successfully crowdfunded an even bigger project. They’ve raised US$117,000 (Dh430,000) to paint an entire favela. Work is due to start soon.

Koelen, Haas and Hahn are part of a growing band of Europeans who have made Rio their home. The Englishman Tom Le Mesurier fell in love with Brazil (and a Brazilian woman) on a trip around South America. He’s been here ever since. “I ended up here by accident,” he says. In the past three years, he has already made a name for himself as the city’s most prolific food writer. After countless requests from the readers of his website (www.eatrio.net), he finally agreed to start running culinary tours of the city.

We meet at Nova Capela on a rainy Sunday morning on one of his first tasting adventures. Despite the early hour, men in suits sit at neighbouring tables in the elegance of this restaurant in the central Rio district of Lapa. A plate of breadcrumbed balls arrives at the table. “These are the best in Rio,” Le Mesurier says confidently. “And I’ve eaten a lot.” Bolinhos de bacalhau are as important to Brazilian cuisine as falafel is to Lebanese. These deep-fried, cod-and-mashed- potato balls are everywhere: workers’ cafes, street stalls and upmarket restaurants. But few places make them as flaky, crumbly and tasty as they do here. Nova Capela has turned street food into a delicacy.

That’s quite typical in a city where simple food is held in higher regard than haute cuisine. “Street food is the best in Rio,” says Le Mesurier. Many upmarket restaurants serve their own take on staple dishes. It’s given rise to a culinary trend known as Alta e Baixa Gastronomia: high low cuisine.

Storm clouds are gathering as we leave the restaurant and pass under the Arcos da Lapa, giant 18th-century arches that used to form an aqueduct. In 1896, tram tracks were built atop the structure. Rattly, old, wooden single car trams still trundled across until August 2011 when a runaway tram careened down a hill in Santa Teresa, on the other side of the arcos, killing five people. A new, safer set of trams is expected to enter service a few months after the World Cup.

The warm rain never seems to dampen spirits in Rio, where there are daily downpours in the summer. That’s handy, because our next stop is the twice-weekly street market in the Gloria neighbourhood. Street bands often appear here; old men sitting in a circle, playing their instruments as the rain pours down.

Alongside fruit and vegetable traders, there are a couple of unusual stalls. Under a canvas, a woman fries flat, white discs to order. Made from tapioca powder, they look like crêpes but have a more grainy texture and starchy taste. Extracted from the cassava plant, which is native to north- eastern Brazil, tapioca is used in Europe to make a type of milk pudding. In Brazil, the tapioca discs are buttered and eaten for breakfast. This morning, they’re filling them with banana and cinnamon, dry beef or cheese for us to eat as wraps.

The Gloria market is also home to Le Mesurier’s favourite breakfast treat: a freshly fried pastel (a cheese or meat pastry) and a caldo de cana (sugar cane juice). Sitting opposite the juice stand is Cristiane Silva de Lima Dias and her fabulous cocadas. For five years, this northern Brazilian has been baking coconut with either passion fruit, banana and cinnamon, chocolate, pineapple or coffee. She then fills the empty shells with the mixture and sells them at the market.

For dinner, we head across town, but there’s going to be a fair bit of walking before we reach our meal. Taxi drivers often refuse to take fares up to Santa Teresa. Like many hilltop neighbourhoods in the city, Santa Teresa earned a reputation as a tough part of town. It was Rio’s Harlem, or Brixton. But like much of the city centre, it has been cleaned up by the sheer force of the local authorities. The nouveau riche are starting to move into the elegant, old buildings with their stunning views. Santa Teresa and its cobbled streets are quietly being gentrified.

Nowhere is a better example of the changes that Santa Teresa is going through than the delightful Espirito Santa. This high-ceilinged, 19th-century house with a terrace overlooking the valley is one of the finest new restaurants in Rio. The Amazonian chef Natacha Fink prepares traditional dishes from her hometown as well as regional cuisine from across Brazil.

Our meal starts with a fruit cocktail on the terrace. It’s starting to rain, but after a week of downpours, we can handle anything. As the shower turns into a storm, we take our starters inside.

Feijoada is Brazil’s national dish. A bit like the contents of a burrito emptied on to a plate, it’s a bean stew served with beef and rice. Fink’s take on this classic is to roll the ingredients into a ball and fry them. The feijoada balls are served with a dip made from acai (the fruit of a Brazilian palm tree).

Next, we’re served chicken fried in a spicy peanut batter, and a breaded fish served with jambu pesto. For the adventurous, Fink prepares a thick piranha soup.

Outside, the gale is growing stronger, blowing debris past the windows. The traffic has all but vanished. The lights flicker and then fade to black. They come back on, only to go off for good this time. Diners light up the room with their mobile phones as the staff get out the candles. Hasty phone calls are made to rearrange the evening’s plans. And then the mobile phone network dies. It’s a Saturday night lock-in at one of the city’s most exclusive restaurants. The week ends almost as dramatically as it began with at the Maracanã.