Last week, police in Rio de Janeiro launched an investigation into the extraordinary events that followed a match in the favela of Nova Holanda. This was an amateur game, between two local teams, but the terrifying scenes at the final whistle are proof of how much it mattered to the watching crowds.
The match took place on a small pitch that had been squeezed between apartment blocks. Hundreds watched through caged fences, while many more were looking down from the windows above.
It was from these vantage points that much of the footage was filmed, and the subsequent videos almost need to be seen to be believed. They show people scaling the fences, fireworks being launched into the sky, and young men with machine guns, firing indiscriminately into the night. One of those armed men, in keeping with the club’s popularity in Brazil, appears to be wearing a replica Arsenal shirt.
CANCHA TRANQUILA EN BRASIL pic.twitter.com/FmJCwRGkZK
— Barra Brava (@barrabrava_net) September 21, 2022
Assuming the investigation has not led the police to his door, we can therefore assume he will most likely be keeping abreast of events in north London on Saturday, when Arsenal host Tottenham Hotspur.
If he is able to watch the game, this gun-toting spectator might recognise some of the battling qualities of the players on show. For while these chaotic street matches in Brazil – known as varzea games – appear totally alien to European audiences, they will feel entirely familiar to many of the South American players in Saturday’s derby.
Arsenal striker Gabriel Jesus, for example, played against grown men in varzea football when he was 13. He did so in the shadow of a prison, on dirt pitches, and the threat of violence was constant. An opponent once vowed to Jesus he would break his legs, and was prevented from doing so only when the teenager was escorted away by team-mates.
On the other side of the north London divide is Richarlison, another forward who has emerged from the varzea leagues. A gun was held to Richarlison’s head once, when he was playing in the wrong place at the wrong time. These are tough places, and they produce tough footballers. “If you can play in the varzea games, you can play anywhere,” said Brazil winger Raphinha, another graduate of street football, last year. “These players play to survive.”
Tenacity, relentlessness and a streetfighting spirit
Such environments often create footballers of a different mentality to those who emerge from the academies of Europe. You can see it in their styles of play – the tenacity of Jesus, the relentlessness of Richarlison – and this streetfighting spirit will be on full display on Saturday.
Never before has a north London derby had such a strong South American flavour. In the most recent round of Premier League fixtures, a total of nine South Americans represented Arsenal and Spurs. By comparison, there were eight English players in the two teams.
So far this season, South American players have played a combined total of 3,804 minutes for Arsenal and Spurs. English players, meanwhile, have been on the field for a total of 3,531 minutes.
These South Americans regularly delight crowds with their skill but, crucially on Saturday, they are more than capable of handling themselves when the game becomes physical. Jesus, Richarlison, Cristian Romero, Gabriel Magalhaes, Rodrigo Bentancur: these are players who bring a sustained snarl, ferocity and sheer willingness to win.
Argentina’s Romero, especially, is a player whose cynical edge cannot be blunted. Just ask Chelsea’s Marc Cucurella, who had his hair pulled by the Spurs defender this season. Or Manchester United’s Harry Maguire, who found Romero screaming in his face following an own goal. Romero’s ferocity has resonated with the Spurs fan base, who adore his aggressive approach.
It should be said that not all of the South Americans have come from the erratic world of street football and violence. It is not true of a player like Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli, who had a stable upbringing and joined an academy at the age of six.
But you only need to watch these players once to know that they are well-suited to the ferocity of a north London derby. Martinelli is no flashy winger, but rather an attack dog of a forward. Jesus and Richarlison are as attuned to the dark arts as to a stepover or backheeled flick.
“A lot of players come from very humble families, and sometimes the only plan they have in life is to be a footballer,” says Diogo Fernandes, the football co-ordinator at Brazilian club Avai, where both Gabriel and Raphinha began their careers.
“There are not many other opportunities for other professional careers, so they become resilient. Other athletes from different parts of the world might have a ‘plan B’, or good schools, or parents who can afford college. That is why, here in Brazil, many players have such great mental power.”
There are few games in English football more mentally testing than a north London derby. But for the growing South American contingent in this part of the capital, such an atmosphere will be nothing new. This is a day to scrap as well as to play, and they will be ready to do both.