While soccer in North America can boast of some successful
signs of positive growth, all is not
going as well as it should
for the sport in Brazil. In spite of its current premier ranking, the
national team has so far performed perfunctorily,
if rather unremarkably, in a series of recent friendlies.
Kickoff Time: To Play and Broil in L.A.
At the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California, two rival teams were vying with each other for bragging rights as
to who would come out on top of a month-long sports tournament that seemed to verge at times on the interminable.
The temperature on the playing field that scorching Sunday in mid-July had soared to a sizzling 100 degrees
Fahrenheit. There wasn’t a shady spot to be had anywhere, and most definitely not in the stands, where over 90,000 sun-baked and
dehydrated sports fans nervously awaited the outcome of the decisive game.
From the air-conditioned comfort of my fifth-floor living quarters in New York, I too agitatedly witnessed this
sweltering spectacle on live network television, alongside my Brazilian-born wife, my two school-age children, and my invited
Obviously, this was not some leftover Super Bowl halftime ceremony, nor was it an outdoor track and field event
from the Summer Olympic Games. This happened to be the final contest in the 1994 World Cup Soccer championship
between three-time titleholders Italy and Brazil, two ancient combatants of this mighty "kicking game," and two countries that
have partaken of a customary Latinate pride and Continental code of honor with regard to their illustrious past soccer
Unfortunately for the Italian side, its last and best hope for total victory abruptly ended in crushing defeat, thanks to
Roberto Baggio’s regretfully misdirected penalty kick (purportedly diverted by Providence itself, some wags would say).
As the overflow crowd heaved a collective sigh of relief, the jubilant Brazilians bounded onto the football field and
gave thanks to the goddess Fortuna for having granted them the special favor of a belated, and unprecedented, fourth World Cup.
It was the epitome of market strategy and maneuvering in this country, the crowning achievement of soccer in
America, to have the International World Cup Soccer finals held on North American soil for the first time in its 64-year history.
A previous attempt at staging the games here in 1986 was rudely quashed by the International Football
Association Federation, or FIFA, the governing arm of world soccerdom, with the main reason given as a "lack of commitment" on
the part of the paying public and the sport’s domestic sponsors.
But, as the congenial host country for this most highly-publicized and anticipated of all international sporting events,
America had acquitted herself admirably enough, considering that the U.S. national team had miraculously survived first round
play, only to be eliminated in the second round by heavily favored Brazil on a lone game-winning goal by the speedster Bebeto.
Goal: Futebol Scores Big in America
Instead of an untimely end to soccer’s bold advance, it was barely the beginning of a steady surge in America of
this emotionally charged spectator sport, a literal rising tide that has gained noticeably in force and momentumand
national acceptanceover the almost ten years since the quadrennial event was first held here.
And what better evidence of this progress in the field than the impressive U.S. team performance at the 2002 World
Cup matches in South Korea, where it toppled the highly touted Portuguese by a score of 3-2, then stunned early morning
viewers with an equally sensational 2-0 triumph over Mexico, only to lose out 1-0 in the quarterfinals to the much stronger
Indeed, the current popularity in the United States of the "beautiful game," in a nation that has owed much of its
very existence to the hard work and sinewy strength of her huddled ethnic masses, who were first credited with having
brought the alien sport to these formidably unfriendly shores some 200 years ago, was certainly a long time in coming.
But like many foreign imports, such as the German Volkswagen Beetle or the Japanese transistor radio, the
blue-collar working-class game of futebol (as Brazilians like to refer to it) had dared to compete directly in the mid- to late
seventies, by way of the now defunct North American Soccer League, with the other more "traditional" television-viewing
pastimes, i.e. Major League baseball, NBA pro basketball, and Monday night football; and in the process, it had deliberately set
itself up for a precipitous fall from TV-ratings grace.
Despite the almost insurmountable obstacles the sport has had to overcome since then, amid the often times
antagonistic competition offered by this delectable garden of armchair delights, soccer has held firm to the cause of ingratiating itself
with young and old alike, and has survived relatively unscathed its initial battle for media attention, to resurface in more
modest middle-class surroundings as the playground game of choice.
From those initial heady times, soccer in America has continued to expand beyond state boundaries and exceed all
previous low expectations, as more and more of the nation’s athletic directors have also become enthralled by the game, and ever
more willing to push for it.
Twenty years ago, it was estimated that approximately eight million Americans had played some form of the sport
(all figures compiled by the United States Soccer Federation and the Y.M.C.A.); by the late nineties, over 17 million had
actively participated in the game, from the enthusiastic junior and youth levels up to and including college varsity play.
There are now over 70 indoor and outdoor soccer franchises scattered throughout the continental United States, the
numbers growing with each passing year.
Even the words "soccer mom" have become as fashionable and familiar a term in the everyday lexicon of English
usage as "baby boomer" and "couch potato" have, and define the very image of a harried suburban housewife trotting her
snotty seed off to scrimmage practice.
With the almost yearly hike in soccer participation appearing to have brought about a somewhat more favorable
turnaround in the fortunes of the sport, perhaps heralding a mass cultural phenomenon still to be corroborated by more
current quantifiable data, the recent demise of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) in September 2003, after only
three short years of unprofitable operation, has put but a small dent in this overall upward trend.
Offside: Practice Makes Brazil Perfect (Maybe)
While soccer in North America can resolutely boast of some successful outward signs of positive growth, and has
even experienced a semi-reasonable facsimile of media megablitz, especially concerning the press coverage allotted
women superstars Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, and Tiffeny Milbrett (albeit in much more constrained form here than in other
soccer-crazed countries), all is not going as well as it should for the sport in the land of Carnaval.
In spite of its current premier ranking (followed closely by France and Spain), the five-time world champion
Brazilian national team has so far performed perfunctorily, if rather unremarkably, in a series of recent friendlies and World Cup
qualifying matches, and against some low-rated international competition.
The Brazilian players’ cavalier attitude toward simple physical exertion has sometimes bordered on the lethargic,
and has driven avid World Cup football watchers such as myself to near frenzied distraction by the team’s diversionary tactics.
In more distant soccer days this slower-paced style of play was once looked upon as a primary source of national
pride, sort of a quasi-mystical combination of soccer mixed with samba. Today, the fast-break techniques of most European
soccer teams tend to leave behind many of the second-string Brazilian players, most of who are not used to stretching
themselves so in their own country’s more tropical climate.
Other higher-priced starters, such as Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Ronaldinho, and rising star Kaká, are
more conformed to this rapid-fire running mode than their lower-salaried counterparts, since all of them play in the European
leagues, another break with the traditional past.
This clash of personal playing styles (and forms of monetary compensation) inescapably leads to frustration and
resentment on the part of both players and coaches over the direction the national team should dutifully take regarding
international combat duty.
In addition, much needed practice time is invariably limited or lost due to the differing playing schedules of many of
the European clubs versus the national team’s own training requirements.
These are not new wrinkles in the Brazilian team fabric, just old war wounds and festering sores that require
Free Kick: How the Mighty Corinthians Have Fallen
The abandonment by native Brazilian talent for richer, more financially fertile soccer plains abroad has even
pervaded the ethos of my own favorite local team, São Paulo-based Sport Club Corinthians Paulista.
A three-time winner of the Brazilian national crown, and a purveyor of the country’s second largest and most vocal
fan base (behind Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo), Corinthians was clobbered 6-1 last month in what can only be politely
described as an "historic" encounter.
By the widest margin in the team’s history, it lost an embarrassingly one-sided fray against upstart Juventude, after a
fog-enshrouded cover had descended upon the dampened enemy camp, blanketing the players with an impenetrable and, as
it turned out, faintly portentous mist of Shakespearean proportions (my thanks to fellow
Brazzil contributor John Fitzpatrick for his apt dramatic depiction of the trouncing).
Upon the culmination of this patently horrific display, head coach Geninho promptly quit the club, refusing to
answer reporters’ queries or even justify his spontaneous actionas if it needed any defense.
In despair, the club turned to legendary World Cup star Roberto Rivellino, a former Corinthians player turned
television sports commentator, to manage the team from the technical side, together with a new field commander, ex-national team
After a trying week, the hapless Júnior became the next casualty of the club’s unlucky losing streak, as his campaign
for all-out conquest all but ended with two more devastating defeats: the first against São Caetano, in his maiden
appearance as técnico (coach); and the second a heartbreaker to arch-rival São Paulo, and by the same depressing 3-0 tally.
As sole survivor (for now) of this carnage, the bloodied but unbowed Rivellino will have his hands full trying to
recover sufficient enough ground to qualify Corinthians for next year’s Libertadores Cup (highly remote).
One of his biggest challenges will be to find suitable replacements for his top-seeded starting lineup, many of whom
had already defected to other teams or been sold off to foreign clubs in Lisbon, Turkey and Hanover, prior to Geninho’s
precipitative departure, as a stopgap measure concocted by Corinthians for raising much-needed capital.
It’s hard to believe that the same team had once won the coveted FIFA 2000 World Club crown, as well as last
year’s prestigious Copa Brasil and Paulista championships.
And before them, all Brazil trembled.
Penalty Call: Romário to the Rescue?
Speaking of which, let us not forget the latest nefarious misdeeds (via the infamous "chicken incident") attributed to
the sport’s prima donna of the playing field, the Mike Tyson of professional
futebol: Fluminense’s own Romário.
His rambunctious bad boy attitude, loopy rock-star lifestyle, and hair-trigger temper tantrums aside, the diminutive
one-man demolition derby went on recently to score the only goal against the sad sack Corinthians troop.
No matter, as flustered Fluminense fans may still have to face the likelihood of their team being relegated to the
ignoble second division, if it continues on its current downward course.
Ironically, Romário was at one time the main attraction of the 1994 World Cup Brazilian national team (along with
fellow teammate Bebeto), and the raison d’être for its record-breaking victory performance.
How much sparkle and élan O Pequeno
Príncipe (The Little Prince, and a doff of the hat to Saint-Exupéry) still has
left in reserve, after nine eventful years atop the profession’s ever-fluctuating upper echelon, remains to be seen.
Perhaps Corinthians could make better use of his talents, which wouldn’t hurt
the club’s chances in the least, nor would it put them in any worse shape than
they are already in now.
But the cantankerous player-cum-prankster may still have a few hat tricks or two up his metal cleats, and his future
most earnestly bears watchingthat is, if he doesn’t self-destruct beforehand.
Yellow Card: Soccer Scrutiny Requested
All of these fascinating turns of soccer events in the United States and Brazil, in a sport once relegated here to the
lowest rung on the financial ladder of American athletic programs, but given far too expansive a coverage (and frequent
overexposure) in South America’s largest country, scream for closer examination.
Not surprisingly, there are no easy answers as to why the game of soccer has gained such a strong foothold on the
Northern Hemisphere, only to begin to lose its all-encompassing grip and, more importantly, its pride and self-respect in the
As a result, soccer should continue to score big with U.S. sports fans, while it could conceivably amble on
indefinitely in comparative malaise in Brazil, the very place where the sport had previously outshone all others.
It should, by all rights, privileges and historical precedents, continue to do so, once it is finally learned what is truly
But in fact, the actual long-term treatment and prognosis for soccer’s many ills may be much more problematic to
administer than originally thought.
Indeed, only time may tell.
Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York, where he worked
for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his Brazilian wife and two daughters. He returned
to the U.S. in January 2001, and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is an insatiable film and opera buff, and
a lover of all types of music including classical, pop, jazz and blues, as well as a World Cup soccer fan and
Corinthiano. You can email your comments to
Copyright © 2003 by Josmar F. Lopes