MANAUS, Brazil -- It is a galaxy far, far away from the alien mother-ship bulk of the gleaming Arena Amazonia World Cup stadium.
Hidden in the scruffy Manaus suburb of Petropolis lies the CIAN soccer field -- barren white sand dotted with the occasional unfriendly rock, most of the right wing a marshy quagmire. A rusting, disused amusement park hulks behind one goal, and after the park you'll find the standard crooked alleys and cramped, dilapidated houses of a poor Brazilian neighbourhood. Before kickoff, the pitch is dotted with boys flying cheap plastic kites under the sweltering Amazonian skies.
The Amigos do Tucha team is first to get here. While they wait for their opponents Santos (an amateur team boasting the same kit as that worn by the team of Pele, Robinho and Neymar) to arrive, the players sit or stand amongst the overgrown grass on the other side of the road. All are in their mid-30s and 40s. Not all, it's fair to say, have managed to retain the trimness of their younger days.
The teams are about to play a group phase game in the Petropolis Sporting League, a neighbourhood competition. Both have already qualified for the next round, making the tie something of a meaningless match. Perhaps because of this, Amigos do Tucha start a few men short. "The other players are probably off playing in more important games," explained Carlos Cavalcanti, the league organiser. "Some of them play three games a day, sometimes."
The Petropolis Sporting League is a precursor to the Peladao, the thousand-team-strong amateur competition/cultural institution that takes over the city of Manaus in the second half of the year. Since its beginnings in 1973, the Peladao, which roughly translates as The Big Kickabout, has expanded to include veteran's, women's and junior tournaments, as well as a competition for the region's indigenous people. A remarkable total of 22,868 players participated in last year's event. Unofficially, it may well be the biggest amateur football tournament in the world. All of which is not to mention the famed Queen of the Peladao beauty contest, of which more later.
Amigos do Tucha player Charles Araujo, a wiry barman in his late 30s, was reserve goalkeeper for the team that won last year's Peladao, Amigos do Felipe Tabuleiro. "I've been playing in the Peladao since I was 18," he said. "It's a chance to show that you can play, and to let people know that here in Manaus we have good football, too."
Manaus' footballing pedigree is a touchy subject at the moment. Along with fellow World Cup ugly ducklings Cuiaba and Brasilia, the city's Mundial credentials have been heavily questioned in the run-up to the event, principally because of the $273 million expense of building the beautiful monstrosity that is the Arena da Amazonia.
Perhaps understandably so. Recently local sides Princesa do Solimoes and Nacional met in the Amazonas State Championship final at the city's compact SESI stadium. The crowd was just over 2,000. What, exactly, is a city where the sports sections of the local newspapers invariably lead with news of Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo or Vasco da Gama, and where the professional teams usually count their crowds in the hundreds rather than the thousands, going to do with a 44,000-seat World Cup arena once the FIFA circus has packed up and gone home?
The Peladao, unfortunately, is unlikely to help much with filling the Arena. In many ways the competition is the anti-World Cup -- organic and rough and ready, where there is no offside rule and kick-ins replace throw-ins. This year Manaus city council will launch the "Neighbourhood Cup" -- an attempt to create a more formal type of tournament where players can develop in a more organised environment. A lack of structure is one of the criticisms the tournament attracts.
"The Peladao is the most famous championship in Manaus. It's bigger than the professional leagues. It's made by the people," said Sirineo Lima, one of the Amigos do Tucha players. "But it doesn't contribute to football, because the players don't understand the real rules of the game. There's no offside, so the players develop but they're not ready for the professional game. Lots of players end up moving to bigger clubs, but find it hard because they don't know positioning or tactics."
At the same time, Sirineo understands that the competition's informality is part of its charm. "The local newspaper has sponsored and promoted the tournament all these years, but has never done anything to improve the pitches," Lima said. "But at the same time, the peladeiro comes from these dirt pitches. That's who he is. He'll play anywhere."
Nor is discipline lacking. The Peladao brings a novel twist to suspensions. Yellow cards are totaled up over the season under the "Make a Child Smile" project, and depending on the number of cards they get, at Christmastime clubs must buy footballs for underprivileged local children.
And the Peladao is about much more than football. There is that famous beauty contest, where, like in the football, the prize for winning is a car. Potential charges of everyday sexism are unjustified, according to Santos. "Every team in the competition has to enter a queen. She could be a 60-year-old woman...Though normally," he admits, "it's the most beautiful girl in the neighbourhood."
In his book "Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life," Alex Bellos describes the opening ceremony of The Queen of the Peladao beauty contest. "The Big Kickabout takes itself very seriously ... before the girls come on a soprano from the city's philharmonic orchestra sings the national anthem. She is accompanied by a rifle-wielding military escort. An acrobatic dance troupe warms up the crowd. Then the sky explodes with fireworks."
The Peladao is a football tournament and a beauty contest made one. "If one of the queens doesn't turn up, then her team is knocked out. And the 12 girls who get through to the final are allowed to bring their teams back to life, even if they've been knocked out in an earlier stage. In my first year in charge in 1998, Arsenal won the title after being resuscitated by their queen. But in the end, she didn't win the beauty contest! So the team won a car, but she didn't!" Santos said with a chuckle.
The tournament certainly stirs emotions in Manaus. A crowd of over 40,000 watched the 2009 final between Alvorada and Panair FC, in what was the last game at the city's old Vivaldao ground before the stadium was demolished to make room for the Arena da Amazonia. During the regular Peladao season, whole neighbourhoods come and stand around pitches of sand, dirt or scrubby grass to cheer on their local team. "If you don't play in the Peladao, you watch the Peladao," said Gelson, one of the Santos players. "It captures the imagination of the whole community."
This being Brazil, despite the games' amateur status the standard of play is unnervingly high. On this day, a few months before this season's Peladao kicks off, the Santos team boasts a number of players who have played professional futsal (indoor football) in Spain and Portugal. And a number of Peladao players have competed in full, 11-a-side soccer at the highest level, such as Lima, a 41-year-old veteran who played for Sao Paulo, Roma and Galatasaray.
Despite the challenges posed by the somewhat eccentric rules, many Peladao players go on to make it in the professional game, such as Nando, a craggy, garrulous centre-forward who recently played for Princesa de Solimoes against the real Santos in a Copa do Brasil game at the Arena Amazonia. "After I won the Peladao with 3B in 2000, Sao Raimundo, who were in Serie B of the Brazilian championship at the time, signed me up. I ended up staying there for six years," he said before the game, gazing wide-eyed around the new stadium. "The Peladao is where the professional teams saw me first. It's where players can show their talent. There are a lot of really good players here. Football in Amazonas owes a lot to the Peladao."
Running a football tournament without the infrastructure of the professional game in one of the world's most violent societies, however, poses its own challenges. If in South America's top leagues referees require armed police escorts when leaving the pitch, what is it like for the man in the middle in amateur football, where the blood can run just as hot?
Antonio Normialdo is in charge for Amigos do Tucha and Santos. "I just try to be fair," he said. "If I respect the players, they'll respect me." It is not always so simple. "Once a group of traficantes [drugs gangsters] came to my house and offered me money to throw a game," he said. "I told them I didn't work that way and they went away."
Nor do things always end up so happily. In December last year, Paulo Cristian Bezerra da Silva, goalkeeper of Amigos do Tonho, was shot and killed in the neighbourhood of Vila da Prata in Manaus. Silva had reportedly been offered 3000 Reals to throw the 2013 Peladao semifinal against 13 de Maio. Two suspects were taken into custody in March.
In a tournament that reflects society like no other, and if that society is Brazil, where there were 50,000 murders in 2012, such stories are perhaps tragically unsurprising.
Arnaldo Santos is under no illusions. For him, the Peladao is about social inclusion in a way that professional football rarely is today. "Right now," he says, "someone from the Peladao is dying, someone is in hospital, someone is in the bank queue, someone has nothing to eat, someone is happy, someone is in distress, someone is selling cocaine. The Peladao is the whole city. And in that way, it is a cry for freedom."