Written by Robert Burgin
Brasil Rugby League Chief Operating Officer Hugo Froes describes the city of São Lourenço as his nation’s ‘Huddersfield’.
Yet, on surface value, São Lourenço does not look anything like the West Yorkshire settlement.
Nor does it look like anything most outsiders would expect of Brasil.
Its major attractions include a steam train, a famed hydro-mineral relaxation resort, a cable car, a sprawling central park with lagunas, and horse-and-carts and architecture that would not be out of place in Germany, Switzerland or Austria.
Some wits may be so emboldened as to proclaim that Huddersfield wishes it looked this good.
But there is one important detail that strikes you when you explore the city for the first time.
Sitting almost smack-bang in the middle of town, no more than 300m from the main entertainment precinct, is a rugby league field.
Although there are now other dedicated or dual-use rugby league fields in Brasil, none of the others can claim to hold such a prominent, visible, valuable position.
This week, less than 100m from the edge of the field, were crowds of retirees who had travelled from all around the country to bathe in the mineral springs, then sip drinks overlooking the adjacent laguna.
Perhaps even less than 10m from where the in-goal area ends, are two undercover exercise areas, where people can enjoy a public workout while staring out over the field.
On the other side of the field is a library, restaurants, bars and a queue of horses, ready to take tourists on a vintage-themed trot around the cobbled city streets.
“All the most expensive land in the city is next to Parque das Aguas,” says BRL pioneer Froes.
“And our field is actually inside the Parque, so you can imagine.
“We are very fortunate the city looks after us this way, but it is not without its complications.”
One of those ‘complications’ is that the field is occasionally used for other public activities. A recent carnival saw straw and truck tyre marks left across the field, bottle lids strewn amid the playing surface, and solid concrete footings implanted on the field to support stages and other fixtures.
All had to be raked up or dug out by the small BRL committee before they could host this weekend’s first national high-performance camp – an event that brought together 80 players from the great expanse of Brasil, all with World Cup and international aspirations.
With almost exactly 11 months until Brasil contests the Women’s World Cup, it was held with a sense of urgency and precautions in the face of prolonged COVID restrictions, intended to be the first of a series of such camps.
Froes’ description of São Lourenço as his nation’s ‘Huddersfield’ stems not only from the field’s proximity to the city heart.
It was in 2015, by the banks of the aforementioned laguna, that Froes agreed to take the daunting leadership role in steering one of the world’s largest nations in rugby league.
Prior to Froes’ assent to the role, Brasil Rugby League had a lot of good-meaning and enthusiastic people involved in different pockets across the country, but nobody to consolidate and coordinate those ambitions in one direction.
The remarkable backstory, which has been covered previously, is that Froes is a slightly-built, dark-skinned individual in his twenties, with Asperger’s Syndrome. He has achieved everything against the odds.
Not only is São Lourenço where the nation’s confederation was founded, it is also roughly equidistant to the major cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and accessible to other key clubs, without being ‘too close’.
São Lourenço is where most overseas delegates come to meet with the BRL, it’s where they still hold hopes of establishing a national performance centre, and it’s a city where the municipal powers-that-be understand and respect its potential to add another string to the region’s bow.
The fact that São Lourenço looks nothing like most outsiders would picture Brasil is also fitting.
There’s a penchant among Brasil’s World Cup squad to reshape what the western world imagines Brasil to be like.
In talking to players, they smile when recounting questions from overseas acquaintances.
“Do you have monkeys in your house?”
“Do you live in a favela in the hills?”
“Do you have electricity?”
Then there is the commonplace statement – “But you don’t look Brazilian” – that most players in the squad have heard at one stage or another.
Far from the movies, where every Brazilian has coffee-coloured skin, and long straight dark hair, you’re equally likely to find players from large migrant communities of years past, from Germanic heritage, Japanese, Italian, Slavic, Scandinavian, African, French and Lebanese etcetera.
São Lourenço may be Brasil Rugby League’s ‘Huddersfield’, but it’s also the platform from where they can present a nation that is modern, diverse and brimming with potential.