World Cup 2014: In an Amazon Village Built for Buoyancy, the Game of Soccer Plays On

The Amazon’s Floating Fields


CATALÃO, Brazil — In this floating village, there is only one way to travel. Students go to school by boat. Pentecostals go to church by boat. Taxis arrive by boat. Even the soccer field is often a boat.

There are three homemade fields on land, but they are submerged now in the annual flooding of the Black River, which meets nearby with the Solimões to form the Amazon. If the wooden goal posts had nets, they would be useful this time of year only for catching fish.

So young players and adults improvise. They play soccer at a community center that has a roof but no walls. They play on the dock of a restaurant. And they play on a parked ferry, a few wearing life jackets to cushion their falls on the metal deck and stay afloat while retrieving the ball from the river.

“We have to keep playing, having fun, wherever that is,” said Jailson da Silva de Souza, 23, a woodcutter in this village of about 100 families just across the enormous Rio Negro from Manaus, one of 12 cities hosting World Cup games. “Otherwise, we’ll get a belly, and women don’t like that.”

A boy carries a goal for playing soccer with friends on the dock of a restaurant in Catalão, Brazil.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times


The wooden houses in Catalão float on the trunks of felled trees. Chickens navigate logs and planks as they wander from their floating coops. Cars are kept across the Rio Negro in Manaus. The cemetery is there, too. And soccer must make its own accommodations. For years, locals said, they played on a mothballed oil tanker in the Rio Negro until it was sold and taken away.

“India bought it,” said Alexandro Ferreira Viana, 35, the organizer of soccer activities in Catalão. “I heard it sank.”

The passion for soccer is evident throughout the village. Brazil jerseys hang on laundry lines. Green and yellow streamers flutter on porches. In one classroom, each member of Brazil’s World Cup team is pictured with a star on the national flag.

Geane de Sousa, 27, who owns a small convenience store near the submerged fields, has the name of her favorite club team, Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro, on her outboard motor. She flies the team flag every time she launches her boat.

“My father loved Flamengo, so I do, too,” de Sousa said.

Apart from soccer and school, there is not much for children to do here during the wet season except to fly small kites, some made from the plastic of supermarket bags, the strings wrapped around cans of soda.

“We don’t like dominoes or cards,” said Ferreira Viana, the soccer organizer. “We only like football.”

The Amazon River basin, the world’s largest, drains an area nearly the size of the contiguous United States. And because the houses, the school and even the provisional soccer fields in Catalão are built to float, the yearly flooding has historically been accommodated with relatively minimal impact.

“The higher the water, the closer we are to God,” said Laércio da Silva, 43, a carpenter.

Yet in Catalão, residents have been confronted with the effects of a recent trend of increasing floods and droughts in the Amazon basin. A white ring painted around a tree represents a record level of water reached during flooding in 2012.

A player retrieved a ball from the Rio Negro. Residents must deal with floods and droughts as the weather becomes increasingly erratic in the Amazon River basin.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

The high-water mark in the Rio Negro this year was the fifth highest in more than a century of measurements taken at the Port of Manaus — about a foot and a half below the 2012 record of 98 feet 4 inches, said Jochen Schöngart, an expert on flood prediction models at the National Institute of Amazonian Research.

Before the World Cup, heavy rain caused flooding at the Manaus airport. A local state of emergency was declared as a preventive measure, though none of the four games at Arena Amazônia were affected.

Three consecutive years of severe flooding around Manaus came after the lowest level of water recorded in the Rio Negro, in 2010, Schöngart said.

As scientists study the impact of deforestation on the Amazon basin, and the cooling and warming of the Pacific Ocean, extreme patterns observed over the last 25 or 30 years raise an important unanswered question, Schöngart said: “Are these trends human-induced climate change, or can we explain this with natural variability?”

In Catalão, villagers said that passing boats sometimes knocked down power lines during periods of exceptionally high water. And while the soccer fields are usually available for about half the year, the land has recently been dry enough for only four or five months of play.

“We don’t have a place for the children to play,” said de Sousa, the shop owner. “They are stuck in the houses, bored.”

The most adventurous, though, will find a game somewhere.

During a recent school holiday, seven boys played on the small wooden floor of the community center, which has a roof but only railings to keep the ball in play.

School desks were stacked in a corner atop a rusty pool table. A wooden backstop was strategically placed along a gap in the railings. A long, narrow piece of lumber blocked another opening.

Villagers enjoy an afternoon in Catalão, Brazil. CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times


Finally, though, the players gleefully jumped in the river after the ball. As they dripped water, the center’s floor became as slippery as an ice rink. Players collapsed in laughter as they tried, often futilely, to stay on their feet.

“I like it here, but the land is better because when you fall you don’t hurt yourself,” said Aldenei Texeira, 14.

Near dusk, as adults arrived from work in Manaus, the pickup game moved to the tiny dock at the Paracambi Restaurant.

“It’s like two sports in one — swimming and football,” said Raimunda Ferreira Viana, 51, the community president and the mother of its chief soccer organizer.

Four or five years ago, the local owner of a construction company began offering the use of other makeshift fields: ferries that carry vehicles and heavy equipment on the river.

Small wooden goals are placed on the deck, and some players wear soccer cleats. Games are usually held in late afternoon because the iron surface can be blistering in equatorial heat.

On a recent Saturday, three teams of five players gathered on an aging, rusty ferry that was nearly 200 feet long and about 50 feet wide. An abandoned gasoline canister was used to scoop rainwater off the deck.

Daniel Camilo Viana, 22, a woodcutter, wore a life jacket. If he had to jump into the Rio Negro for the ball, he said, “I don’t want to go too deep.”

Gilcivane da Silva, 24, a housewife who has lived in Catalão for only a month, played on the ferry for the first time and won three games as a defender. “Very cool,” she said, but there was no chasing the ball in the water. “I think an animal will catch me.”

Not to worry, said Ferreira Viana, the community president.

“The caimans don’t bite us,” she said. “They’re our friends. We live in the same water.”