In a country dominated by football and samba, rugby will take centre stage for two days in Brazil this summer.
Rugby sevens is making its debut in the Olympic Games this August, and hoping to make his mark in Rio de Janeiro is Juliano Fiori, the Londoner who is bidding to play for Brazil.
Juliano, 30, was born in Hammersmith and raised in Ealing, but has a mixed identity with his father being Brazilian-Italian, and his mother Belgian-English.
And despite having grown up in London and enjoying a successful playing career so far with Richmond and invitational side Apache sevens, Juliano admitted that his heart was always set on representing Brazil.
“I’ve always identified strongly with Brazilian culture with my family who live over there, and I was brought up supporting Brazil in any sport I’d see them play,” he said.
“We always had a very strong connection, especially in sport and I was a big Brazilian football fan.
“I always watched the Olympics and supported the Brazilian athletes so it’s a huge privilege and honour to be able to get the chance to play for Brazil.
“I didn’t get to watch the Brazilian rugby team much when I was growing up, but nonetheless, I always had a desire to represent Brazil in some way.”
Juliano is currently living in Rio de Janeiro with his girlfriend, Alba, where he is training with a group of 23 players which will be whittled down to a final 12-man squad for the Olympics.
He has taken a sabbatical from his job as head of humanitarian affairs at the ‘Save the Children’ charity in order to channel all of his focus into earning himself a spot in the team.
Team training, based in Sao Jose dos Campos in Sao Paulo, takes place twice a day from Monday to Thursday, then Juliano trains alone either in the gym or on the golden sands of Ipanema Beach, which is only a couple of blocks away from where he lives.
Rugby hasn’t played a part in the Olympics since Paris in 1924 — and back then it was the 15s code that was entered with just three teams participating.
The USA took home the gold medal after beating off competition from France and Romania.
Rugby was then discarded as an Olympic sport until 2009 when the International Olympic Committee voted to include rugby sevens in Rio 2016, and Juliano believes that it is the exposure that rugby sevens rightfully deserves.
“The fact that it is rugby sevens, and not the 15-man code that has been chosen to be a part of the Olympics is significant — it’s a more accessible sport than 15s,” he said.
“People who have never seen a game of 15s come to a sevens tournament and find themselves gripped and on the edge of their seats in ways that doesn’t always happen in 15s.
“Rugby sevens is great, dynamic sport and it’s very watchable.
“It’s great to see that the game isn’t just seen as a development sport for 15s, it’s seen as a sport in its own right.
“More money has been invested to professionalise it and that is reflected in it becoming an Olympic sport.
Twelve teams will compete in the sevens tournament in Rio, which will be two days long.
Matches consist of two halves of seven minutes in length, although ten minute halves are allowed in the final of a competition.
After Brazil automatically qualified as the host nation, the remaining spots were awarded to teams that won various qualifying championships which began in May 2015.
Just one more spot is up for grabs in both the men’s and women’s competitions, which will be decided in June.
The competition will be a fierce one, with some nations drafting in stars from the 15s code to add some X-Factor to the game — including World Cup winning New Zealanders’ Sonny Bill Williams and Liam Messam.
Brazil will go into the competition ranked as outsiders, but Juliano insists the team will take inspiration from other smaller rugby nations who have tasted success on the sevens circuit.
“Sevens is such an unpredictable game,” he said.
“Seeing how the likes of Kenya, Japan, Portugal and Russia have been able to compete in the top tier of world sevens shows us that a country that has less of a rugby tradition can break through and be competitive at the top level.
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and start thinking that we’re going to be competing for a medal and be high flyers in the tournament, but we want to be competitive and put on a good show and give the Brazilian fans something to cheer for.”
As well as hoping to pull off an upset, Juliano is confident that his country’s participation can inspire a generation of football-obsessed Brazilian youngsters to buck the trend and pick up a rugby ball.
“It will definitely help to promote the game of rugby in Brazil and the Olympics can galvanise different interests that can stimulate growth in sport in Brazil,” he said.
“Rugby is already one of the fastest growing sports in the country, so the board and the directors are quite keen to make sure that Brazil are competitive and can put on a good show for the youngsters who might become inspired to come through and play the game in the future.”
After the conclusion of Brazil’s participation in the Olympics, Juliano plans to move back to London to continue working and carry on from where he left off with his rugby career.
But, the easy-going Juliano is laid back when asked about his future plans and is in no rush to make a concrete decision.
“In theory I will be moving back to London after the Olympics, but I don’t know what that will mean for my rugby,” he said.
“Perhaps I could go back to Richmond and train with them and see if I can get some games for them in the Championship, or whether I focus on trying to play for Brazil 15s and help them qualify for the World Cup in 2019.
“I’m also going to be 31 by the time the Olympics is over so I need to think about how much longer my career is going to last.
“But I’m out here with my girlfriend at the moment so we need to play things by ear slightly, but we’re thoroughly enjoying our time here.”
Image courtesy of the BBC, with thanks