Pulling The Flag

A Scotsman Melts In Rio

Newcastle Blackhawks receiver Alan Bartholomew couldn’t resist searching for flag teams during his trip to Rio de Janeiro. His pale Scottish skin may never recover…

There were rumours a few years ago that the great Ronaldinho was to sign for Scottish side St Mirren.

The thought of the former Barcelona and Brazil star strutting his stuff in Paisley on a wet and windy Saturday afternoon in November was fantastical to say the least. Sadly, it never happened. But recently, an “illustrious” Scottish flag footballer did make a sensational appearance on the opposite shore.

I’d been planning a few months travelling round South America, and happened to chance upon the Rio de Janeiro Devils, a flag football team from Brazil’s second largest city, which will also host the upcoming Olympic Games.

I thought: “Why not ask them if you can have a game?”

So I did. With Google Translate as my friend, I got in touch with the team and was delighted to discover that Danilo, their quarterback, spoke better English than most people from Newcastle. So it was decided. I could attend training and test my abilities with the best players Brazil had to offer. Sure, it meant only taking two pairs of pants and one t-shirt to last the rest of the three month trip, but that would be worth it if I could fit in my cleats and Blackhawks kit for the sake of one morning, yeah?

A mild hiccup – by the way of two cracked ribs received in a pre-season game for the Blackhawks – threatened to derail the opportunity. However another of my good friends, Ibuprofen, helped keep things on track.

A week before I left, I got a message from the Devils. Turns out they actually had a friendly game the day I was there and would I consider playing for them.

Cheeky, I thought. A hastily arranged fixture when they knew my safe hands were gonna be in town. They must have been one of the three folk who saw the video of that A-M-A-Z-I-N-G touchdown on Facebook.

Now things were serious. If I turned up and performed badly, it would give the samba boys a terrible opinion of the British game.

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I was interested to hear the history behind the field where the Devils played. Not too far from the Maracanã stadium, Danilo told me.

“The field where we play has a huge historical relevance. The building in the background used to be the home of emperor Pedro II, the last of the Brazilian Empire. When the Republicans took the power, some soldiers stood on that very grass to surround the Palace. The emperor’s family tried to escape using a secret door hidden by bushes, the one you can see from where we sat. It was a peaceful coup, so they escorted the emperor and his family to a port and they went to exile.”

Not sure even Freeman Field in Newcastle is that famous.

Training started at 9am, at which time it was 7ºC and raining in Newcastle. But in Rio it was 29ºC with 88% humidity. I’d used all the water I’d brought with me on the walk from the subway to the park. Us Scots are great at many things; Tennis, engineering, rebellion (…well, maybe not so successful at rebellion), but we are no experts at coping with full-on sunshine, let alone running about in it.

Other than the searing heat, everything else felt very familiar. A friendly, welcoming group, most of whom showed up half an hour late and the other half only on game days. There were even rumblings of a a new team in São Paulo also calling themselves the Devils and playing with the same colours.

😵

Scandalous.

I was given a brief summary of the defensive playbook, I was impressed by the tablet that HC, Raphael Gerpe, used with a range of different formations and looks. I nodded that I understood, internally hoping the other team was useless and I could wing it…

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Any hope of that was blown away on the first play. Starting on D, the Devils gave up an end-to-end score on a mid-range completion with plenty of YAC. There was a look of disbelief on the sideline. This was clearly not in the game plan. But The Devils retained their composure and methodically moved the ball up the field to score on their own opening possession.

I got a call from the HC to go in on the next defensive drive. I was happy with a few tackles and defended passes, as this time the Devils D stood firm. I sat down in the shade to recover and must have drunk a litre of water right there.

I was happy I had been involved and was content to watch the team play the rest of the game. But no. I stayed on D the rest of the half, sweated my own body weight away and even though it was still early, felt I was being sunburned to the point where my face would match the Devils shirts. HT came and I slumped down like an ice cream carelessly dropped on a summer’s day.

Well, at least I could rest and enjoy the second half from the sidelines…

“Can you play offence?”, asked Coach Gerpe.

“Erm, yeah. Theoretically I know how to play offence, but I’m not so used to the heat and there’s a lovely bench in the shade over there next to the girls with fans”, I replied.

Something must have got lost in translation, because soon enough, I was lined up at receiver with Danilo under centre. We ran a few trick plays and short routes, but the drive wasn’t going anywhere.

Then, still deep in our own half, Danilo asked me to run a post.

The defence was one-high and as soon as I set off I saw the safety bite hard on a short route, I felt like Popeye downing a can of spinach and ran hard over the safety’s head. Danilo had made the same read and threw the pass. Now all I had to do was make the catch in stride and jog to the end zone and the reputation of the British game in Brazil would be safe…

The catch was reeled in and the Devils lead was established with an end-to-end score. Fireworks were let off, and confetti flew out as the cheerleaders danced in celebration.

Hang on, no. That bit might not have happened, but it’s how I remember it…

Satisfied that I wasn’t going to top that moment, I took my seat in the shade and watched the Devils add a few more scores to run out comfortable winners.

What a wonderful group of players they were. Every one of them said how great it was to be able to grow the sport by establishing international relations like we did that day.

Flag football is more than a sport, it’s a community. The British flag community are a welcoming, passionate bunch and now I know the same is true of our South American friends. At the Blackhawks we always end a match day with a good feed, and the Devils didn’t disappoint on that front either, taking me out for a traditional Brazilian BBQ.

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I know one Blackhawk who’d have been insanely jealous of this, but he couldn’t even eat three burritos in ten minutes so he may have come up short in this food challenge too!

It’s a pipe dream, but I hope one day the Blackhawks squad could travel together to somewhere like Rio. But it might rain, so that rules Ian out. Chris can’t do Saturdays, Tyler could be deported again. John might have no working limbs left and Jamie would sleep in and miss the flight. But it’d be great to host visitors from all over the world ourselves in Newcastle. I’m sure that sentiment would be echoed by the majority of those running other teams across the UK.

Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you catch that long ball, miss the throw, or evade the tackle. Whether you win or lose, the important thing about our sport is spending all day with friends; those on your team and your opponents, loving every minute of it and going home with a smile on your face desperate for more the next week. Be that in Newcastle, Rio or anywhere else on earth.

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