The LIJSL Boys U-16 team in 1987. (Michael Lewis/ FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)

The first of two parts

In  1987, yours truly went on a trip of lifetime with the Long Island Junior Soccer League Boys Under-16 team to Brazil. This diary b FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis, which was published in two parts in Soccer Week, holds up well over more than decades and might have a familiar name or two in it. Just remember this journey was accomplished in the days before laptop computers, cell phones and MLS. Heck, Christian Pulisic  born yet. Read on and enjoy! Reposted with permission.

By Michael Lewis

Although it had a number of obstacles and times resembled a pilot for National Lampoon’s “South American Vacation,” my recent journey to Brazil with the Boys Under-16 Select Team from the Long Island Junior Soccer League was an opportunity of a lifetime to experience a culture that was a mystery to me.

It also was crazy, zany, bizarre, insane, great and manic. But it as worth it.

When you’re a soccer-crazed person like me, this is the closest thing to heaven. But I’m still alive and I can tell my colleagues, friends and family about my experiences.

And those experiences in and around the Pele Tournament were unforgettable.

Saturday, Aug. 1

Little did I know that when I boarded Eastern Airlines Flight 861 at JFK that it would be the longest day — or is it week? — of my life. We left at 8:30 a.m. and started an amazing journey that led to Orlando, Miami, Montego Bay and Kingston, Jamaica — all in one day. Remember, our destination was Brazil.

Due to space limitations, I can’t tell you the entire story, only that our chartered airline, VASP, was having some problems — mechanical and/or political, depending on whom you talked to — with the plane. So, we were routed by a man named James (his favorite line was, ‘We have this little problem”) from Orlando to Miami (where we raced through the airport in minutes to barely make our connection, Montego Bay (where we watched a romantic sunset) and Kingston, Jamaica (where we finally rested our weary bones).

We arrived at an airport that was surrounded by thousands of people who were watching seemingly one television. We later discovered it was Independence Weekend in Jamaica.

Sunday, Aug. 2

Woke up, had breakfast and bought a T-shirt that aptly summed up the trip. It said, “Jamaica, no problem.”

Actually, I had weathered the trip fairly well, transforming whatever anger I did have into humor, or least what I perceived as humor. For example, I reminded the team and coach Bill Easteadt to look on the bright side of things: That it was still undefeated in its tour of  Concacaf countries.

Not much happened today, except we took off for Brazil and stopped in Manaus (a city of 200,000 in the Amazon, believe it or not), and Rio on our way to our final destination.

Monday, Aug. 3

How long have we been on the road? Two days? Two weeks? Two months? At times it seemed that long. Finally, at 4:40 in the morning, we disembarked in Sao Paulo. Finally.

After passing through customs, a 45-minute bus ride to the Pompas Palace Hotel, four hours of sleep and an unexpected cold shower (where was the hot water and did anyone in New York hear me scream?), the four groups — Long Island, the Texas Longhorns (Dallas), Virginia Survivors and a French team (from the Paris area), met with Prof. Julio Mazzei, who explained the tournament. He apologized for the plane headaches. ‘It’s easy to say now it was not our fault,” he said.

Tuesday, Aug. 4

Long Island was supposed to play Associacao Portugusea de Desportos in the morning game, but Sao Paulo, its afternoon opponent also showed up. So, after a brief argument, it was decided that Sao Paulo would play.

It seemed that every game had a personality.

L.I. came out strong as Michael Luongo scored in the 12th minute, but the team lost a player to an ejection late in the game and somehow hung on for a 1-1 tie. Not the greatest of performances. But for a group of 16-year-olds coming off a marathon plane trip, not bad, not bad at all.

I missed the afternoon game — a classic we’ll get to that in a minute — for a referee’s seminar in downtown Sao Paulo. Getting there was half the fun.

First, my dress shoes were missing from my room. After an extensive investigation, this is what happened. Randy Vogt, who was my roommate for most of the trip (he was the invited referee from Long Island on the trip), moved to a different room. While Vogt was moving, a bellhop pointed to a pair of shoes and said, “703 [which happened to be my room].” Randy thought they were to be shined and thought nothing of it. After trying to communicate with hotel workers (how come people understand less English when there’s a problem?) and asking the bellhop, who somehow forgot the shoes, we finally discovered the missing pair of be in Randy’s room.

I turned the shoe episode into a joke the rest of the trip. No matter what the situation, I managed to comment, “Well, at least I have my shoes.”

There was the cab ride downtown. I mentioned to Randy that the driver had a little of O.J. Simpson in him (editor’s note: hey, remember, this was seven years before what transpired in 1994 — show he was then known for his slashing runs and not slashing other things). I mimicked a football announcer, “He’s at the 20, the 30, the 40 . . . ” Suddenly a car swerved in front of the cab. Instead of breaking, the driver moved into the center median and went around the wayward car. Stunned and shaken, we didn’t say a word for a minute. Then I continued my play-by-play. “He almost gets knocked out of bounds at midfield. He’s on the sidelines and he’s going all the way for a touchdown.” Fortunately, the driver could not understand English.

Amazing.

And what a game I missed. Or so the players told me. Portuguesa had taken a 2-1 lead on a disputed penalty kick late in the game when all the fireworks occurred. Immediately after the kick, Easteadt got into a shoving match with the Brazilian coach and several members of his team came over to help.

Meanwhile, the referee signaled to start play. Jack Fabrizio noticed several players and the goalkeeper out of position and lofted a 55-yard shot that bounced into the net for the tying goal.

Amazing.

Wednesday, Aug. 5

In the middle of the night — it must have been around 3 a.m. — I woke up for no apparent reason. Or so I thought. Suddenly, I felt great pain in both my legs. For the first time in years, I had severe muscle cramps and the cramping seemingly latest for hours (OK, it was only for a few minutes). I was later told it was due from exhaustion, because of the long trip and the hours that I had been keeping.

When I awoke at 6:30 a.m. (thanks to a daily wake-up knock at the door by team trainer Helen Bodenstein, who did the same thing for Randy and Bill, I could barely stand, let alone walk. After a quick self-massage (where was the trainer when you need her the most?), I was able to walk again — just barely.

It was an omen to a weird, weird day.

The game, a 4-1 loss to Penha, had a “Twilight Zone” quality to it. With the score 2-1 late in the game, L.I. had an indirect free kick in the Penha penalty area, but it was blocked — by the Penha coach, who had ran onto the field. Security guards, Prof. Julio Mazzei and heaven knows who else ran onto the field to top the melee.

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Prof. Julio Mazzei, a long-time confidante of Pele, organized the tournament. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer Photo)

The ball eventually was awarded to Penha and L.I. lost its composure and the game.

The day wasn’t a total loss. A bunch of us attended the Corinthians-Botofoga game that night. Corinthians is sort of like the Mets of Brazilian soccer, I was told, underdogs who have risen to the top. They indeed demonstrated that that night, rolling to a 5-0 victory.

It also turned out to be my introduction to Brazilian soccer and there were two things that I took away from that game: how physical it was (Mazzei warned us of that) and how radio announcers would be on the field right up until the opening and second-half kickoffs, interviewing players for their precious words of wisdom. Incredible.

 

Because we sat among the fans in the stands instead of a press box — the American press contingent included Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner — I grabbed the moment. After the third goal, I unfurled my Corinthians flag I had bought outside the stadium, stood up waved it and cheered. The natives in the stands loved it. A foreigner, an American at that, cheering for their team. They even cheered me.

Thursday, Aug. 6

The theme of this trip was “Hurry up and wait.” Generally, if you were supposed to be on a bus at 9 a.m., it was a good bet you would still be in the lobby at 9:20. Last night’s soccer game was no exception, as we were ushered out of the stadium 15 minutes into the second half, waiting for a bus that showed up an hour after the game. Try to figure that one out. We could have watched the rest of the game. It was a bit irritating at first, but most of us got into the flow of things.

Now the games meant something. The first three games were warm-ups and L.I. had second life in the quarterfinals against Palmeiras. Only 1:51 into the match, L.I.’s Craig Marino sliced a cross that went into the net for a goal (he later admitted he was crossing the ball, not trying to score). But after that, it was no contest as the Brazilians put on a clinic on how to convert dead-ball situations, scoring two free kicks (from virtually the same spot) and a penalty kick.

Life brightened up in the afternoon as we were taken to a sporting goods store downtown. Like many others, I bought a Brazilian national team shirt. I also purchased a pair of blue shorts — grande (large in Portuguese) that I felt I didn’t need to try on. My mistake. The shorts were so tight that not only could you tell my sex, but my religion as well. Maybe they could fit my sister. I would hate to fly all the way back to Brazil to exchange them.

One last thing. The Pompas Palace never will be confused with the garden spot of Sao Paulo. The hotel is on the outskirts of town — tournament officials did not want the teams to be in the middle of the city — and had unusual elevator rules of only six people to a car.

Of course, that was in effect only when they worked. I had one unusual encounter. After leaving my room, I entered the elevator; hit the button for the first floor and down I went. The elevator stopped at one, but the door didn’t open. I hit T — ground floor — but it still didn’t open. Suddenly, the elevator shot up to the 14th floor. I had visions of it not stopping and the car going through the ceiling. It stopped, but the door didn’t open. It started its descent and stopped — unexpectedly — on the 11th floor. Realizing I received a second lease on life, I got off and walked the remaining 11 floors. And besides, I could have used the exercise.

Friday, Aug. 7

The finals of the Sao Paulo part of the trip was at Santos Stadium, home to many of the goals scored by the great Pele. The stadium was a bit weathered, but had a homey feeling, not unlike Fenway Park in Boston.

The trip to Santos seemingly was one long commercial to visit Brazil. On the bus ride on the way to the stadium, we saw land that was green, lush and mountainous. However, occasionally huts and shacks dotted the countryside, a reminder that not everything was perfect in the world.

We visited Pele’s new house — about an hour away from Santos in the country — or perhaps I should call it a hacienda. It had three floors, a game room, a stereo room, a video and film room, a trophy room that was not yet finished, and that wasn’t counting the upstairs. Before you ask, no, Pele wasn’t in. He was in London for the Rest of the World vs. English all-star games.

To top off the night, we went to a pizzeria, which managed to feed a group of 100 in world record time, and danced the night away at a disco. The most disappointed group at the disco was the Long Island team. The youngest woman there was 19. “An old woman,” a player said. I replied, “Hey, that’s a baby to me.” I’m 35 and I guess everything is relative.

Saturday, Aug. 8

Thank God for the United States’ 1-0 upset of England in the 1950 World Cup in Belo Horizonte. If it hadn’t been for them, I might have frozen along with the team on its middle-of-the-night bus ride from Sao Paulo to Rio. It seemed that the bus did not have heat as temperatures feel into the 40s (it’s winter in Brazil now).

But I and several other journalists were headed for Belo Horizonte to relive some history. I took a cab to the airport with Soccer America associate publisher Lynn Berling and Gardner, with whom I shared the backseat. Unknowingly, we did our best to entertain Lynn, who eventually likened us to Siskel and Ebert of move-reviewing fame. Suffice to say, Paul and I did not agree on every subject, whether it was soccer, life in general or the color of the sky.

I also discovered at the airport that my Corinthians flag (I could not stuff it into my luggage, so I was forced to carry it) became a lethal weapon. Paul claimed the flag almost emasculated him twice, but it did move the crowds out of the way when I walked through busy terminals.

After a delightful flight, about a dozen of us boarded a bus that whisked us to our hotel, but not before some creepy crawlers made some of our lives unbearable. The bus was infested with cockroaches, scaring people half to death (I won’t mention any names, OK, Lynn?). In fact, Lynn tried to gain entry to the bathroom in the back of the bus, but the door was locked. I explained the cockroaches had locked the door and wanted some privacy.

Sunday, Aug. 9

After an evening of serious drinking with Lynn, photographer Phil Stephens of Dallas and our bodyguard (yes, every group had a bodyguard; tournament officials did not want a disaster in the very first Pele Cup), Nelson Simone, I woke up with a hangover.

I lifted my head from my pillow. “Professor,” I told no one in particular, “I don’t feel very well today. Could we postpone this to another day?”

Of course, he couldn’t, and I recovered quite quickly. This was a special day — a reunion of several players from that 1950 World Cup game. I happened so long ago that my parents had barely known one another when the game was played.

Next up: The second and final part of this extraordinary trip, which includes some up and down time in Rio, beach soccer played by yours truly and a few other surprises.

 

Here are two stories that you might be interested in:

FANTASTIC VOYAGE: Part II: Patience is a virtue in Brazil

 

GETTING A PASS (DAY 3): A memorable 44-hour trip to Brazil, a journey to a legendary stadium in Belo Horizonte and much more