Someone recently recommended a documentary to me called Pelada. The advertising copy for the film states: "Away from the bright lights and manicured fields there's another side of soccer." It tells the story of two former football professionals who still have a love-for-the-game and who travel the world in search of everyday people who also have that same love. While the film is superficially about football and the people who love to play it, it is really about football as a metaphor for people's hopes and aspirations.
Their first destination is, predictably, Brazil. To say that football is the most popular pastime in Brazil is like saying that white is the most common color of snow. I was reminded of the time I was in a small Brazilian Amazonian town with plans to move on by bus to another town. I went to the bus station to inquire about departure times for the following day. There was a minor league football match taking place involving a local team and it was being broadcast live on TV. The staff at the ticket office made it clear to me that they would not attend to me until half-time.
During a later scene in Pelada I was reminded of an experience in Burma (Myanmar) that shocked me at the time although my memory of it no longer does. It was late in the evening in Burma and an important football match was about to kick off in Europe. I was in a very small town that went to bed around 9pm; this was many years ago when the local police were all military and were duty-bound to enforce the curfew. So I didn't expect to be able to watch the match. But leaving my chosen restaurant close to the curfew time I walked past a small café with an open front, bright lights and a TV with the volume turned up so loud that it appeared to be preparing to defy the curfew and the police. There were only a handful of people inside but, as I found out later, they were there to watch the match.
During half-time I got talking to my fellow spectators. The conversation turned to food, then "junk" food and then McDonald's. One of them — a young man in his late teens — asked "What's McDonald's?" His friends laughed and I laughed along with them — thinking I was joining in what was obviously a joke. Except it wasn't a joke. I called his bluff by offering him money if he could tell us what McDonald's was. That restaurant chain has never had a presence in Burma but, I thought, surely in a place with TVs and foreign channels he'd at least heard of it. He took the challenge; his friends remained silent knowing I was serious. No money changed hands. Before the second half began I asked him if he'd ever heard of an English professional football team called "Manchester United." His eyes lit up and he spent the next five minutes telling me just about everything there is to know about Manchester United!
Just like the filmmakers in Pelada, I often get invited to play in informal, sometimes impromptu football games. I was in an indigenous Kreung village in northern Cambodia in 2005. I was there to photograph something important — the first Kreung school ever to teach children in their own indigenous Kreung language. These boys approached me during recess and, through sign language, invited me to play Pelada — it was much more significant to them than the comparatively game-changing development of literacy.
The Kreung are featured in our documentary, Peoples of the World: Southeat Asia.If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider "buying us a coffee" to help us cover the cost of hosting our web site. Thanks!