RIO DE JANEIRO — The coolest sport in Brazil takes place outside the Olympic bubble. There are no cameras and anthems, certainly more mettle than medals.
To find it, you need only stroll along Ipanema Beach, where young boys fly kites and tourists and locals alike spread their towels. In the mornings, it’s usually quiet, the waves crashing the shoreline and vendors just starting to hawk everything from sunglasses to grilled meats to alcoholic drinks. It’s not too early for a caipirinha, apparently, and it’s not too early for Marcello Lepre, the top-ranked footvolley player in Rio de Janeiro.
The 26-year-old is an acrobatic whiz in a sport that requires as much athleticism, flexibility and quickness as most of the Olympic competitions being staged here this month. Footvolley is a hybrid sport, born on Copacabana Beach more than 50 years ago when football players, either bored or enterprising, began juggling a soccer ball over a net. It’s part volleyball, part soccer and wholly intoxicating. Imagine volleyball in which players can use any body part except their arms and hands. Getting the ball over the net might be as simple as a header or as beautiful as a bicycle kick.
Lepre has been playing since he was 5 years old, gravitating toward footvolley rather than soccer. He’s a professional in a sport that isn’t particularly lucrative, but the lithe young man is recognizable to any regular along Ipanema Beach, where footvolley nets outnumber volleyball courts. Lepre arrives every morning for training and returns each afternoon to play all comers. Pickup games could draw crowds, especially those inclined to lay down a bet or two.
“It’s a beautiful sport,” Lepre said. “It’s fun to play, and it’s beautiful to watch.”
Lepre, who has won two world championships, is hopeful the sport continues to grow. As it is now, he scores modest cash prizes from winning tournaments and makes ends meet by helping at his family’s ice cream parlor.
Renato Adnet is the founder of the Rio de Janeiro Footvolley Federation and has organized leagues and tournaments across the country. He commissioned a study that found more than 40,000 players in Brazil and said the sport has spread to 70 countries in some fashion. In Brazil, former soccer stars such as Romário and Ronaldinho are some of footvolley’s most famous adherents.
Once the Olympics pack up their rings and leave town, the beach volleyball arena on Copacabana Beach will be used for footvolley’s world championships. Organizers are hopeful they can fill 12,000 seats and ride the Olympic wave toward more international exposure. Twenty-three countries will take part, including teams from the United States, Japan and Australia, in two-person and four-person tournaments. Adnet thinks the sport’s popularity is nearing a point for Olympic consideration.
“Our biggest problem is the women,” he said. “We do not have enough women playing.”
The sport is still in its infancy in the United States. There’s a fledgling tour, a handful of high-level players, some sponsorship and regional cable network deals. But American organizers are still trying to grow its ranks.
“Understand that this is a difficult sport to pick up,” said Eric Montoya, head of the Florida-based U.S. Footvolley Association, “but that is also the opportunity for growth because it does require training, dedication, and most importantly it is very fun to play.”
In Brazil, the sport can be found at all hours of the day on most of Rio’s beaches — as long as rain isn’t falling and the wind is calm — and also in parks of landlocked cities such as Manaus and Brasilia. One recent morning on Ipanema, Jerson Fernandes, a 53-year-old former professional soccer player who now trains footvolley hopefuls, barked instructions at a young woman.
He booted a serve from the back line over the net — the court is slightly smaller than ones used for volleyball and the net is lower, 7 feet 2 inches off the ground — and watched as the young player let the ball bounce off her chest.
“Higher!” he yelled in Portuguese. “Put the ball higher. How are you going to do this? You’re too cold.”
While some of the footwork might translate to the beach, many soccer players still struggle adapting to the sport. Moving on sand is more difficult. Using the shoulders and chest to pop the ball to a teammate takes some learning. Keeping the ball skyward can be counterintuitive.
“It is hard to compare,” Fernandes said. “Yes, you use your feet at times, but the rest is different. The posture and dynamics are totally different. The things you must do are totally different.”
With a soft playing surface and less ground to cover, there aren’t as many injuries, and top players compete into their 40s and 50s. Pickup games match men and women of all ages.
João Neto, 31, is Portuguese, and he came to visit Rio de Janeiro for Carnival two years ago.
“I saw a crowd gathered on the beach,” he said. “I had no idea what they were doing. But then I saw footvolley, and I kind of fell in love.”
He moved to Rio and spends all of his free time on the beach. Those first games earned him a variety of bruises as his shoulders and chest struggled receiving the ball. But he slowly learned to make soft passes to his partner, drill headers hard over the net and make diving kicks to save a point.
A game with highly skilled players looks as much like a ballet as a competition, with players flying through the air, manipulating their bodies like acrobats, desperate to keep the ball in the air. The Summer Games brought the best athletes in the world to Rio de Janeiro. Some of them already might have been here, twirling and kicking far away from the spotlight.
“It needs infrastructure. It needs to grow,” Neto said. “But with the Brazilians pushing the sport forward, hopefully it can be in the Olympics someday.”