Breaking Barriers
One goal at a time

Come August, all eyes will be on the Summer Olympic Games in Brazil -- especially the highly anticipated soccer matches taking place in six cities across what Brazilians proudly proclaim to be “the country of soccer.”   

But on a blue-sky March day in a remote village carved out of the Brazilian rain forest, another game is feverishly underway, this one played out by a cast of unlikely teammates with nothing more than bragging rights on the line.

The village is Xirimóia, an otherwise indistinguishable tiny speck of dirt within a vast sea of arboreal green in the Brazilian state of Amazonas.  The outpost of about 150 people – villagers here record the number of families, not individuals – is the latest stop on the University of Cincinnati honors study tour of the Amazon region.


Ugulima Amhes Garrido, the village’s 64-year-old matriarch and undisputed authority, meets the crowd of 16 UC students and five faculty and staff members as they step off a riverboat and onto a silted beach leading up to the village with its panoramic views of the muddy waters of the Rio Cuieiras, one of dozens of tributaries that feed into the Amazon River.

“Boa tarde,” she exclaims, her wizened and weathered face breaking into a wide smile. 

A half dozen children, some wearing only shorts, shyly peer around the corner of a green clapboard building at the latest crop of visitors to their jungle home. Amazônia Expeditions, the family-owned riverboat excursion company leading the 10-day study tour, brings up to 60 visitors from across the globe each month to this off-the-grid village to engage with its indigenous residents and peruse the handicrafts made by local artisans.

The students stroll through the rural community on dusty brown walkways packed hard and solid by the slapping of bare feet. Clucking hens and squabbling dogs haphazardly scatter as the proud village hosts show off their simple but brightly colored wooden homes, many of which are powered by a generator located on the village’s outskirts and boast satellite dishes and flat-screen TVs. 

Xirimóia looks timeless, but it was established only 20 years ago when Garrido and her family – now numbering 10 children, 46 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren – moved to the area from Santa Isabel, a city of less than 8,000 people located 310 miles away on the Rio Negro just south of Venezuela. The extended family’s new home along the Rio Cuieiras, Garrido said, brought them closer to hospitals and medical clinics in the sprawling Amazonian capital of Manaus – a mere seven hours away by motorized canoe. 

As the heat of day begins to build, the awaited match gets underway on a sandy field situated prominently in the center of the village alongside partially constructed concrete buildings that will soon become the village’s school and library.

Student playing soccer
Brazilian girl kicks ball around a defender.
Students chase after the soccer ball.

Like most of Brazil, soccer is more than a game for the residents of Xirimóia. Since its introduction in Brazil more than 120 years ago, futebol as it is known here, has become deeply and passionately interwoven into the very fabric of Brazilian culture, becoming both a catalyst of social unity and a virtual religion for Brazilians.

More than a dozen villagers join the UC students and expedition crewmembers in staking out opposing sides on the field, where intermingled teams pit villager against villager and student against student. A crowd of residents drag dusty plastic lawn chairs beneath a leafy thicket of bamboo trees to catch the action as a chattering Capuchin monkey – a village pet – leaps from branch to branch overhead.  Other spectators peer out from across the field, squatting in the grass or peering through open windows while washing dishes with water fed by rainwater collection systems.  

The competition this afternoon is friendly, but fierce. Barefoot village women and teenage boys (many of the community’s adult men spend the afternoon fishing) dominate the field, with deft elbow and chest blocks and skilled back heel kicks.  A woman in a cropped tank top revealing a toned midriff runs to the sidelines to breast-feed a chubby-cheeked baby before racing back to the game, giving new meaning to the term “soccer mom.”

Shouts of encouragement and good-natured banters in Portuguese and English erupt from the field and sidelines, but the language differences are no barrier here.    

“Even though we didn’t know each other’s language, we still communicated and bonded over the sport.  It was really cool to get excited over the same thing,” said Monica Hemmelgarn, a second-year nursing student. 

“Soccer is the universal language,” echoed Evan Talkers, a soon-to-graduate business student who played on the UC Bearcats soccer team his freshman year and served as the football team’s kicker the following year.

Their energy spent beneath the sweltering Amazon sun, the group heads down the sandy slope for a postgame plunge in the cool dark waters of the river. The students from UC join limber-limbed village boys and girls in fearlessly scaling the docked three-story riverboat, scrambling up giant rubber tires before dive-bombing and back-flipping into the depths below.

It’s an afternoon and experience that will long linger in the minds of many, the UC students later agree as they relive the boisterous events of the three-hour match that united soccer fans from across more than 3,330 miles and two continents.   

“You can’t read about these things and have the same experiences. You just can’t,” said Erin LeFever, a third-year student majoring in environmental studies. “No matter how you picture it, until you can feel it and be with them, it’s not going to mean anything to you. I’m definitely not going to forget the kids I met and I’m not going to forget this village ever.”  


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