Deep in the Amazon, an Isolated Village Tunes In to the World Cup (New York Times)

MANAUS, Brazil — The PP Maués would not set sail for an hour, but its long and narrow decks were already crisscrossed with hammocks for an overnight trip down the Amazon.

By the time it was to dock early last Monday at the regional port for which it was named, the Maués would have traveled 15 hours from the nearest World Cup stadium.

A second boat would be needed to reach an even more remote indigenous village that planned to watch Brazil play Mexico last Tuesday. The village did not have electricity or cellphone signals and would rely on a diesel generator to indulge its secluded passion for soccer.

While Rio de Janeiro and its famous beaches provide the touristic backdrop of the World Cup, the fevered grip of the world’s most popular sporting event can be felt even in some of the most isolated areas of the rain forest, where outsiders seldom visit.

“Football is in our blood,” said Andre Pereira da Silva, 32, the chief of a small community of Sateré-Mawé Indians in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon, who served as a guide. The intended destination was his home village, Monte Salém, one of an estimated 150 Sateré-Mawé (pronounced sah-teh-RAY mah-WAY) communities of about 11,000 residents along the lower Amazon.

The decks of the PP Maués were crisscrossed with hammocks for an overnight trip down the Amazon.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

“Wait until you see it,” Pereira da Silva said. “You will feel you are in the middle of the stars.”

As a boy in Monte Salém, he made soccer balls with the sap of rubber trees, using a stick to shape the latex into an improvised if sometimes uncontrollable sphere.

“Ten trees for one ball,” he said, sitting in the boat’s tiny dining room Sunday with his young son, his own thick hair tied in a ponytail. “The problem was, it bounced too much.”

On the passenger boat’s upper deck, the sentimental romance of Brega music played from two huge speakers. More than 300 customers were aboard a ship half the length of a football field. Children played among the hammocks and the luggage or peered over the rails. Some passengers transported used televisions or flat screens still in their boxes. In the aft of the boat, a new washing machine and refrigerator were lashed together, as if exposed as stowaways.

Most passengers lay in their hammocks, sleeping, reading, or listening to music and playing games on smartphones. Some watched on tiny green screens as Lionel Messi and Argentina opened their World Cup against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The game was also showing on a small, staticky television in the boat’s galley. Two men sat on backless chairs. Two more peered in the doorway as a cook made gelatinous soup from orzo, meat and carrots.

“Messi’s slow tonight,” Rodrigo Xavier, 26, said. “He’s not playing well.

Xavier, a Brazil fan, drew great pleasure from this.

Minutes later, Messi passed the ball and retrieved it on a give-and-go. He skimmed the top of the penalty area, dribbling past two defenders who collided and fell behind him. Given wide space, he ricocheted a shot off the left goal post and into the net. Xavier smiled. This was why Messi was widely considered the best player in the world. Even a Brazilian had to admit his appreciation.

Abruptly, the kitchen cleared. The boat had no satellite dish, and the TV’s antennas lost contact with the signal from Manaus. Paulo José, the ship’s owner, was left to eat in silence. He did not seem to mind.

“I don’t like football at all,” José said. “I’m different from most of the men.”

A nearly full moon appeared, sending a column of light rippling toward the boat. A man pointed his flashlight at the water’s edge, searching for caimans and their cigarette eyes. The stars seemed as white and near as the blossoms that hung from trees like scoops of ice cream.

MONDAY DAWNED COOL and overcast. Lightning flashed on the horizon. The rain came, and rolls of blue plastic were unfurled along the sides of the decks to keep passengers dry.

“It’s raining because the English are here” at the World Cup, Pereira da Silva said with a laugh.

Passengers disembarked the Maués after a 15-hour overnight trip down the Amazon.Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

By 8 a.m., only a drizzle remained as the boat reached Maués, a small regional port where a caffeine-rich plant called guaraná is manufactured for use in sodas, energy drinks and herbal teas. Firecrackers greeted the ship’s arrival. Fishermen paddled canoes toward market, their foam coolers full of prized fish with striped tails.

On streets above the docks, Brazil flags fluttered from an armada of motorcycles. The most deft or careless of the bikers steered with one hand and held an open umbrella in the other. Shops sold soccer balls, hats, plastic trumpets and jerseys of Neymar, the young Brazilian star forward. Even a kitten wore a necklace in Brazil’s colors, yellow and green.

Some men wore jerseys of the big Brazilian club teams — Flamengo and Vasco da Gama — allegiances built in the 1950s and 1960s, when the only radio signal that reached Maués came from Rio, more than 1,600 miles away.

A few teenagers were spotted wearing their own versions of Neymar’s distinct Mohawk mullet, which he sometimes dyes blond.

Neymar scored twice in Brazil’s opener against Croatia, but Pereira da Silva was not certain that Neymar was ready for the World Cup.

“He needs more experience; he needs to fight a little more,” he said. “He’s only interested in his gold hair. That’s the story of footballers today. They want to be good-looking.”

He carried a large sack of clothes to give to the chief of Monte Salém or trade for seeds to make necklaces and bracelets. He was to meet his mother and father in Maués and then travel together to the family’s ancestral village. At least that was the plan. Now there was a problem. The generator in Monte Salém was broken.

“Argentina,” Pereira da Silva said wryly, finding a convenient scapegoat. “Argentina breaks everything.”

After a breakfast of soup and hot sauce, he found another village with a working generator. It was called Nova Belo Horizonte. The trip would take 75 minutes by power boat from Maués. In midafternoon Monday, the equatorial heat was stifling, but Pereira da Silva’s parents yelled, “Waku sese” as the boat reached the village. Everything is really good.

Nova Belo Horizonte is home to 22 families, most of them living in wooden houses with thatched roofs. A rudimentary soccer field, with wood goal posts and no nets, has been cleared of stones and tamped flat amid the surrounding groves of guaraná, pineapples, oranges, bananas, peppers and the staple root called manioc.

For the first time, men’s and women’s teams from the village are participating in an area tournament of Brazil’s Indigenous Games. An important men’s match is scheduled for Sunday. The winner of the tournament will receive $1,500, which could readily be used in a village that, like other indigenous communities, has tried to protect traditional lands from encroaching development and perceived government indifference.

Health care is distant and inadequate, village elders said. There is no radio contact with the hub Maués, four or five hours away on the most common type of boat. Cellphones do not work.

The front steps of the school have crumbled, and the ceiling leaks. Classes for older students in Nova Belo Horizonte cannot be held at night during the World Cup, villagers said, because area government officials seem to be on holiday. Only a portion of the diesel needed to fuel the community generator had been provided.

“They only want our votes,” said Pereira da Silva’s father, Luiz Sateré, 56, a community coordinator for the Sateré-Mawé. “It’s the only thing that matters.

Sateré-Mawé Indians playing soccer in the Nova Belo Horizonte village. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Yet even if spending on World Cup stadiums seemed wasteful in a country with so many needs, it was important that the tournament returned to Brazil for the first time since 1950, said Reginaldo da Silva Andrade, 27, the chief of Nova Belo Horizonte.

“Brazilian people are the ones who love and watch the game the most in the world,” da Silva Andrade said.

IN NOVA BELO HORIZONTE, soccer serves many purposes: fun, fitness, conflict avoidance and a diversion from alcohol and drugs. It also provides a chance to socialize with other river villages. Teams travel by boat, and tournaments are often accompanied by festivals.

More important than the money available in the Indigenous Games, da Silva Andrade said, is a chance to “show people on the outside that we are capable of doing this.” He added: “We are realizing our dreams. People think we can’t play. We’ve got to show them.”

On Tuesday, when Brazil played Mexico, all classes were canceled in Nova Belo Horizonte. It will be the same every time Brazil plays. At sunrise, women in the village began hauling water from the well, carrying buckets on their heads. Soon, children kicked around a soccer ball. Some stood in the goal wearing flip-flops on their hands to cushion the heaviness of the shots.

Two small boys played with a ball made from plastic bags, paper and a sleeveless T-shirt. One kicked the ball past the other and yelled, “Goooooooal!” The generator rumbled on to test the television at the chief’s home. The TV kept going on and off.

It is a widely repeated story that soccer came to Brazil in the late 1890s when a man named Charles Miller returned from schooling in England with two balls in his suitcase.

But Pareci Indians earlier made balls from the latex of rubber trees and played a game called zicunati, which permitted only heading, according to “Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life,” a book by the British writer Alex Bellos.

An Indian nicknamed Indio helped Brazil qualify for the 1958 World Cup, the tournament that introduced Pelé to the world, Bellos wrote. In the late 1990s, José Sátiro do Nascimento, a defender who sometimes used coconuts for balls as a boy, became the first Indian to make one of Brazil’s top club teams, Corinthians of São Paulo. In 2009, a professional team of indigenous players was formed in the state of Pará.

Among the Sateré-Mawé, female players are welcomed, which is not always the case in the broader macho culture of Latin American soccer. One women’s team in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, carries the name of the initiation ritual in which boys in the tribe become men after being repeatedly stung by venomous ants.

When Brazil played Croatia in the World Cup opener, Janildzes Michiles, 28, said, she took written notes, concentrating on the defensive work of the mop-haired star David Luiz.

“It is a way to show women can do the same as men,” Michiles said.

On Monday night, while the generator in Nova Belo Horizonte ran for a couple of hours, Michiles watched the United States defeat Ghana, 2-1. Ghana seemed to play better, applying more consistent pressure, she said.

“The Americans ran hard for the ball, but they have to get faster,” she said. “They looked slow.”

Sateré-Mawé Indians in the Nova Belo Horizonte village watch the Brazil-Mexico match.Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

EARLY TUESDAY AFTERNOON, Nova Belo Horizonte hosted men and women from a nearby village, Brasileia, for two pickup matches. The visitors traveled in boats decorated with green and yellow streamers and announced their arrival by blowing whistles.

Both the women and the men from Brasileia prevailed by 3-1 scores in wilting heat. After Rariani da Silva Andrade finished the women’s game for the visitors, she lent her right shoe to her husband, Isaías Oliveira Gomes, whose left foot remained bare.

“He has an injured toe,” she explained.

Friendly defeat for Nova Belo Horizonte did not dampen enthusiasm for Brazil’s World Cup match against Mexico. Some villagers watched from their own homes. About 20 spectators gathered in the outdoor kitchen of the community chief. A few wore festive crowns made from palm fronds. Chicken stew and a crunchy flour called farinha were prepared. Eleven minutes into the match, the television clicked on.

“We will watch and learn,” said da Silva Andrade, the village chief.

Neymar soon threatened with a header, but Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico’s goalkeeper, dived and pushed the shot wide. At halftime, the match remained scoreless.

“I’ll be playing for Brazil in the second half,” da Silva Andrade joked.

When the game started again, Ochoa remained impenetrable. He deflected the ball with his hands and his thigh. His positioning and anticipation and reaction were impeccable. The villagers in Nova Belo Horizonte grew nervous, frustrated.

A pet parrot began to squawk at the anxious voices. One woman held tightly to her lucky beads. Michiles, the women’s player, hid her face behind three palm fronds. In the final minute of regulation, the score remained 0-0. Then the television went out.

It came back on briefly, then failed again as the game extended into three minutes of added time.

“The TV is angry with Brazil,” joked Pereira da Silva, the village chief and guide from Manaus.

Again and again, the screen flickered on, then went blank.

“The TV is scared,” said another villager, Geovani Miranda, laughing.

The screen went dark another time. When the picture returned, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Brazil’s coach, was giving a postgame interview. For a few seconds, there was confusion in Nova Belo Horizonte. Then came confirmation. The final score was 0-0 on an afternoon of intrigue and missed opportunity.

When Pelé appeared on the screen to give his analysis, the TV again went off. It was just as well.

“I don’t want to hear any apologies; I don’t want to hear how it would be different if Pelé was playing,” Pereira da Silva said, the humor gone from his voice. “Even the TV doesn’t want to hear him.”

It could have been worse. At least Brazil had not lost. In Nova Belo Horizonte, the home team remained favored to win the World Cup.

“Brazil is a fighter,” said Luiz Sateré, Pereira da Silva’s father, who wore a Neymar jersey. “Brazil is a warrior.”

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