One of the secrets to the European Open’s success is the collaboration between the IBJJF and the local promoters. On the front lines in the effort is the Portuguese Jiu-Jitsu Federation (FPJJB), headed by black belts Kiko Alves da Silva (president) and Diogo Valença (vice-president). Ever since 2004, the Portuguese entity has worked alongside the IBJJF in producing the third most significant championship on the gentle art calendar. To unearth some more of the story, we had a conversation with Diogo Valença. During the laid-back chat, the black belt and leader of Gracie Barra Paço dos Arcos remembers the European Open’s start back in 2004, reveals the difficulties and challenges he overcame throughout the past seven installments, promises new features, recalls good and not so good moments and being the dedicated host he is, recommends can’t-miss trips around Lisbon and its adjacent areas. Coming up, an exclusive interview with the black belt who got his start in judo, has been training since 2000, was once a rock and roll bassist, and now is practically a gentle art executive.
How did the European Open come to be and how did Portugal become the home base for the event?
During a friendly conversation with Master Carlos Gracie Jr. the idea of putting together an event in Europe came up – more specifically one in Portugal. The only people the master knew in Portugal were us, me and Kiko, another black belt, and so we accepted the responsibility straight away. The ability to speak Portuguese, the border agreements letting foreign athletes enter into Portugal, the level of life, the climate, and the strategic location of our country were the main reasons for the choice. Thus arose the need to create the Portuguese Jiu-Jitsu Federation, an entity that would represent the style amidst the highest governing bodies of sports in the country.
What’s the secret to putting on a well-organized event?
From the scant 200 athletes from the first event to the nearly two thousand participants next weekend, in the background a great deal of work was and continues to be done. From January to January, a joint effort is carried out to promote, advertise, and lend credibility to the art we all love so much. Most people don’t have an inkling what it’s like to organize and set up a federation or an event with thousands of athletes, and at times we have it really rough. Fortunately, both me and the president, Kiko, have backup from a most of the teachers and athletes in Portugal. They are the ones who give us the strength to forge ahead in this difficult and often demanding work. We also have to stress the enormous support from the IBJJF, specifically vice-president Marcelo “Siriema” Araújo! All the knowledge and assistance he has transmitted to us gave us the best foundation we could possibly have.
In what way has the annual European Open championship helped to develop the gentle art on the continent in general and Portugal in particular?
Jiu-Jitsu in Portugal has been growing at a fantastic rate. Although it is economically one of the worst places in Europe for Jiu-Jitsu teachers to teach, it was thanks to the efforts of the teachers who stayed and those that were already here in Portugal that Jiu-Jitsu is now pretty much spread all across the national territory and just keeps on growing. The European Championship, by bringing year after year the best athletes to our country, is the best showcase we can give our athletes, sponsors, and the media in general. It’s unbelievable how the European Open is the style that most fills the pavilion where it is held, compared to all the other styles presented there.
What was the best moment and the trickiest situation you’ve been through in the European Open?
To me as an athlete and teacher, there were two best moments that I can remember. First, without a doubt, the match between Roger Gracie and Ronaldo Jacaré back in 2005, when the pavilion was packed and in sheer silence throughout the ten-minute match. Nor can I leave out Kron Gracie’s win two years ago, the day after his grandfather, Helio, passed away. It was a very striking moment and gave the whole pavilion goosebumps, when he paid tribute to his grandfather. Tough moments? Sincerely, if there were any, the good moments erased them!
Did anything funny happen that stuck in your memory over these seven years of the event’s existence?
The old “pineapple pizza” story. It was the year it snowed in Lisbon (it hadn’t snowed there in fifty years) and I remember we had to send out for pizza for the staff to eat because the motorcyle-delivery boy who was supposed to bring them got hypothermia. As it’s custom to eat “tropical pizza” (topped with pineapple), that’s what I chose on the menu. I had no idea Brazilian’s don’t eat pizza with pineapple… Felipe [Pires, director of the IBJJF] later explained to me that they eat pizza and pineapple no problem, but separately. I think the next year there were still those who remembered the joke! “You didn’t choose pineapple pizza, did you?”
Every year the number to sign up increases. In 2011 there will be over 1,800 athletes. How do you meet this growing demand? Is there anything new in store for 2011?
The important thing is for athletes to participate in the event and feel it’s a good and credible organization with quality and safety. Fortunately, all these aspects are our main focus in every event promoted by the IBJJF and the FPJJB. If the athletes return and bring with them more training partners, it’s because they liked it. Without a doubt it’s the most important Gi tournament in Europe and third in the world, just nipping on the heels of the Pan! As for news, they’re surprises and best left to show them when the time comes.
To wrap things up, is there anywhere in Lisbon you recommend for visitors who are going to the tournament and want to see somewhere only locals know?
This time of the year is not the best for getting to know Lisbon. However, for anyone who likes photography, Lisbon is a unique setting. The seven hills and the Portuguese boardwalk provide a unique glimpse of this special city. On a sunny day, there’s nothing like visiting some of Lisbon’s hallmark neighborhoods: Alfama, Bairro Alto, and Castelo. And – who knows? – maybe eat at a watering hole listening to Portuguese guitar and someone singing fado. For history buffs, visit Jeronimos Monastery, where the caravels that discovered Brazil set sail, and make the most of the trip to eat the famous pastels in Belém. Visiting the romantic Sintra villa with its spectacular palaces in a unique microclimate is another suggestion, which you can end with a trip through Guincho and Cascais, which are close by. If it’s raining, you can always go to Expo zone and visit the Oceanarium, one of the biggest aquarium’s in the world.