My Dubai Expo: Brazilian freestyle footballers found on TikTok impress the crowds

Four professionals were flown over from Sao Paolo to perform in their country's pavilion

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Only six weeks ago, Brazilians Ricardo Chahini, Jonathas Bonela, Vitor Vieira and Lucas Menezes had never really considered travelling to Dubai.

But that was before tour manager Luciana Chama discovered them on TikTok as she searched for talent to showcase the best of Brazilian culture at Expo 2020 Dubai.

One of my goals is to make freestyle football more famous around the world, so I'm so happy and grateful to be here at Expo
Victor Vieira, professional freestyle footballer

Now the four freestyle footballers have a new legion of fans, thanks to their stage shows at the Brazilian pavilion.

“We have big audiences, people want to take pictures with us. Freestyle is a sport which makes people happy to watch,” said Mr Menezes, 27, who started freestyling in 2009, teaching himself from videos on YouTube.

The sport involves creatively juggling a football using any part of the body, apart from the elbows to the hands.

But the performance is far more than that — as it combines football tricks, dance, acrobatics, music and a key ingredient — attitude.

Freestyling is popular all around the world, but in particular on the streets of Brazil, a country where football is considered not just a sport but a way of life.

All you need to freestyle is a football, a small amount of space and a determination to learn.

“I started freestyling in 2007 after watching some videos of Ronaldo and other Brazilian players in commercials and things,” said Mr Bonela, 29, who learnt in his garage.

“After some months I learnt some tricks, and that motivated me to keep going. And one year after that I had an opportunity to perform in a big event in Rio.

“From 2009, I started competing and performing, and took it seriously as a professional.”

Traditional players such as Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho and Pele have all juggled footballs to improve their control techniques, but they are not considered freestylers.

“Everybody looks at freestyle and thinks it's the same as football. But no, it's different. You don't need to know how to play football to do freestyle, and you don't need to do freestyle to play football,” said Mr Menezes.

“There is no comparison,” said Mr Chahini, who started playing at the age of 10 and was freestyle world champion in 2019.

The World Freestyle Football Association hosts competitions every year to gauge the best freestyler. Formed in 2005, it has members from all around the world.

Practice makes perfect

Freestyle footballer Lucas Menezes balances a ball on his neck in a performance at the Brazilian pavilion. Antonie Robertson / The National

All four freestylers have spent more than a decade learning their craft, and know each other from competitions. Their performance sees them interact, tossing the balls to each other, and spinning them round.

Popular tricks include the 'Crossover', a move in which the ball is kicked into the air with one leg, and the opposite leg goes around the ball while it is in the air and the 'Stall', where the ball is caught on part of the body, such as the neck.

There is also the 'Around the World', a move in which the freestyler plays the ball off one foot, which then circles up and over the ball before returning underneath to play the ball again.

Learning these tricks takes hours of repetitive practice, but the freestylers still love it.

“The best thing about freestyle is how it can change your mindset,” said Mr Vieira.

“When I started practicing and learning tricks, it made me realise that if you focus, if you train, you can do whatever you want.”

The troupe of performers were astonished when they were invited to perform at Expo 2020 Dubai in August.

“I didn't believe it until I got here. The guy rang and said, 'Do you want to go to Dubai?', and I said 'You're kidding me?' I didn't even have a passport — it had expired,” said Mr Bonela.

“It was all so fast,” said Mr Menezes. “It wasn't until we were in the airport that I believed it.”

Next on the freestyle calendar is the World Championship in the Spanish city of Valencia on November 20, and while there is no guarantee of winning that accolade, the team have already achieved one aim, said Mr Vieira.

“One of my goals is to make freestyle football more famous around the world, so I'm so happy and grateful to be here at Expo,” he said.

“We love the pavilions, they are all amazing. It feels like Disney World here, because there are birds singing, there is music, everyone is friendly, and you can learn about the culture of every other country,” said Mr Bonela.

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Updated: November 03, 2021, 9:30 AM