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Any mention of ‘La Decima’ immediately leads to memories of Real Madrid’s lengthy quest for its long-elusive 10th European Cup, landed in 2014 in one of the most dramatic and emotionally draining finals in recent memory at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz with an equaliser in the 93rd minute from captain Sergio Ramos forcing extra-time and later a 4-1 victory over exhausted cross-city rivals Atlético.

Fast forward three years and the moniker is again in use with a comparable amount of pride and licence to bragging rights on the line – this time to name the 10th edition of the Copa da Paz, contested between neighbourhood teams in favelas across São Paulo.

At stake is a handsome cash prize of 25,000 reais (£6,200) and 10,000 reais (£2,200) for the runner-up. For getting so far, both finalists will receive new kits and sponsorship from Uniex – a top manufacturer for semi-professional and amateur clubs. To get into contention for such rewards, however, there is a 3,000 reais (£715) entry free and then a group stage to navigate before tense knockout rounds take hold.

But by no means is this a Mickey Mouse set-up. Appointed officials are FIFA registered and communicate through wireless intercoms. After refereeing here, Salem Fonde flew to Rio the next day to oversee the Série A derby between Fluminense and Flamengo. Additionally, electronic boards are used for substitutions and to announce added stoppage time at the end of 35-minute halves.

Created as a protest to halt seemingly never-ending violence between warring neighbourhoods, often over football, the tournament was the first of its kind when inaugurated in 2008 and is always hosted in Paraisópolis – the city’s second largest favela, of over 100,000 inhabitants, mainly descendants of Brazil’s poor rural north-east – by the community’s biggest team Palmeirinha at its home ground; a fenced astroturf pitch just off the bustling main street complete with a spectator stand, near which lies a getaway tunnel to narrow alleys should the police be in pursuit of bandidos who have been chased back home or are under siege in a raid.

Indeed, when not being used for games, the stadium transforms into the setting for their tribunal do crime (court crime), conducted by video link with imprisoned chieftains, and brutal punishments are meted out to those found to have done wrong towards their neighbours – therefore striking the fear of God into those who, deeply invested in a fiery domestic squabble, are threatened with “Vou te levar para o Palmerinha” (“I’ll take you to the Palmeirinha”) through the week.

Read  |  A Tale of One City: São Paulo

When Saturday comes, though, a samba-driven support, complete with drums, dancing and specially-created chants, is exhibited by those in the stands as tinned cans of beer from hampers are knocked back and the whiff of churrasco barbeque and marijuana smoke is ever present. Immensely proud of their own community and in no fear of provoking the residents as they make their way to the lion’s den, fans of visiting teams often arrive at the Palmeirinha ground in conga mode after having paraded down Paraisópolis’ dusty main stretch, Melchior Giola.

With the majority of Brazil’s finest exports hailing from neighbourhoods such as these, a high level of quality is on display and it’s not uncommon for some players who may have slipped by scouts during their younger years to be given a second roll of the dice and asked to try out at professional clubs. Featuring more commonly, though, are those who did make it yet have long hung up their boots and are compensated on a pay-to-play basis.

More famous figures who have graced the Palmeirinha with their presence include Champions League winner Flavio Conceição, who played at Palmeiras with Rivaldo before the pair were purchased by Deportivo after the 1996 Summer Olympics. Whilst Rivaldo would leave for Barcelona after just one season, Conceição would stick around for the miracle 1999/2000 campaign led by an equally genius Djalminha who would see Depor crowned La Liga champions before Real Madrid acquired his services.

At the Bernabéu, Conceição would be Spanish champion twice more, cementing his place in club folklore upon providing the assist for Steve McManaman in a Champions League semi-final victory at the Camp Nou that paved the way for Zinedine Zidane to score that goal in the final at Hampden Park.

His appearance at the Palmeirinha is remembered well by the locals but Conçeição’s own memory is fuzzy at best. The team he featured for, Inter, lost in the 2014 instalment of Copa da Paz but after the full-time whistle, he received a hero’s welcome from the area’s ruling gang, who paid him in cash for his services, rolled out a red-carpet treatment then sent him off on the back of a motorbike for his own good; worse for wear after perhaps enjoying himself a little too much and unable to keep up with more unappeasable appetites. “They said ‘Stay, Fla!’ But I’d had enough,” laughed Conçeição at an advertising agency event launch late last year.

Palmeirinha waited for what seemed an eternity to finally taste glory themselves. Subjected to seeing rivals come and claim victory on their turf year after year, they ended their drought in 2015. In the team’s clubhouse a stone’s throw from the touchlines, the huge faux-gold trophy sits proudly amongst various others it dwarfs for size for coming out on top in prestigious comunidade tournaments around São Paulo.

This is made possible by the fact that the Copa da Paz isn’t the only tournament Palmeirinha is currently contesting nor is it for the other teams it competes against with the weekend being fully taken up by games in differing competitions while some may also play in midweek. Neither is Palmeirinha the only team in Paraisópolis, although it is certainly the biggest, best-known and the sole outfit in the community that has its own ground. Astoundingly, in the only slum bigger than it in São Paulo, Heliópolis, from which hails the aptly-named Favela participating in the Copa da Paz, there are over 200 outfits.

Read  |  Rivaldo: the shameless showman from the favelas

Back in Paraisópolis, foes include Monaco and two teams, Inter and Grêmio, intriguingly named after the two biggest clubs in a city – Porto Alegre – situated much further south than São Paulo, closer to the border with Uruguay and perhaps best known as the birthplace of Ronaldinho, who came through the Grêmio academy. When the Copa da Paz has been concluded, the Copa Palmeirinha will be fought out between Paraisópolis’ main players and other guests. 

Its name and dedicated use of green, most prominent on its Incredible Hulk-featuring team bus parked proudly on Paraisópolis’ main avenue, Palmeririnha has no link to Palmeiras –  although as mentioned some ex-stars from the defending Brazilian Série A champions have featured here – other than that the club’s founding family, now headed by the charismatic Chiquinho Da Silva who oversees all things Palmeirinha and was the brains behind the Copa da Paz, were attempting to divert away from the norm when it was founded more than 40 years ago.

That’s because this is a predominantly Corinthiano neighbourhood, with Chiquinho even one himself. Additionally, the Palmeirinha sits a steady stroll from São Paulo’s stadium in neighbouring higher-class enclave, Morumbi. Thankfully, clubismo (bias and favouritism towards one’s team and a failure to acknowledge the qualities of rivals) is firmly put to one side for the good of cheering on the local heroes.

Amazingly, their ground backs on to houses, from the roofs and balconies of which many have a pitch side view, and a barbershop with a cleared out, glassless window that customers can witness the action through while having their ears lowered. Whenever an expensive match ball enters the stratosphere and goes stray, youngsters scale the fence and scour the streets for its safe return.

The best game thus far has been Palmeirinha’s thrilling 4-4 tie with Unidos do Ester after the hosts gave up a two-goal first half lead. A golazo from ex-professional Tatu pulled it back to 2-1 until completion of an impressive hat-trick that put Unidos in front. Adding to Palmeirinha’s meltdown, Unidos made it 4-3 but blushes and a point were spared by substitute Su’s equaliser.

Luckily, Palmerinha scraped through to the knockout stages from Group H on goal difference as all its participants ended with three points from three draws. In the last-16, they were thrown into a ‘best v worst’ clash against the imposing São Lorenço from deep in the Zona Sul (southern suburbs). Tying in with Palmeiras’ traditional Italian background and resembling Italy sides of the past who were woeful in the group stages of their World Cup victories but gained traction when it mattered most, they managed to survive by the grit of their teeth yet again by hanging on to a 0-0 deadlock for dear life and coming out on top in a penalty shootout that still failed to silence São Lourenço’s boisterous travelling contingent.

A walking bastion of knowledge on futebol na quebrada, Eduardo Lima runs an excellent Portuguese language blog chronicling developments in tournaments across the comunidades of Latin America’s largest city. This year, he finds it hard to pick a winner but – although an admirer of Palmeirinha and a well-known face here sharing a mutually-returned fondness of Senhor Chiquinho – doubts his men have the minerals to be crowned champions for the second time in three years – as Madrid were themselves before claiming a third in four at the conclusion of the 2016/17 European football season and at the expense of Juventus

By Tom Sanderson   @TomSandersonSP