Walter Bahr with a Belo Horizonte child at a 1950 World Cup reunion. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer Photo)
By Michael Lewis
Second of two parts
The most important lesson I learned from my Brazilian experience in 1987 was one of patience, as in how to be more patient.
Time and life move much slower south of the Rio Grande. There was one bus trip with the Long Island Junior Soccer League’s Boys Under-16 Select team, for instance, where time seemingly stood still for me.
I looked at my watch. It read 11:31 a.m. I closed my eyes, looked outside, talked for a bit and then looked at my watch again: 11:35. It seemed an hour had passed.
Depending on where you were going, it could have been life in the fast — and sometimes slow — lane in Brazil with the team in the Pele Tournament.
Sunday, Aug. 9
Before I was rudely interrupted by the end of page nine in the Aug. 27 issue of Soccer Week, I was relating my experiences with a special reunion of several players from the 1950 World Cup team that upset England in Belo Horizonte.
We enjoyed a pleasant stay at the stadium where Americans Harry Keough and Walter Bahr talked about the reenacted some of the great moments and plays of the match: Joe Gaetjens’ goal, goalkeeper Frank Borghi’s save and Charlie Columbo’s game-saving, but dangerous tackle. And there was Wilf Mannion, a man who oozes with class, a member of that English team who accepted an invitation to the reunion.
Children from the neighborhood followed us into the stadium and became the darlings of the session. They formed a circle around the three dignitaries and held hands. What a beautiful scene. In fact, everyone had such a great time, they had to be pulled into the bus, lest we miss our plane back to reality and Rio.
So, we flew into Rio (our luggage was whisked off by cab to the hotel; at first, I felt leery of letting it go, but I figured it would somehow get there. There’s that Brazilian patience coming out of me) where we attended the Rio championship match between Vasco da Gama and Flamengo.
From where I saw — to the left of the penalty area — I could not tell if it was much of a game. But it was the surrealistic spectacle that stole the show at Maracana Stadium, the world’s largest stadium. Some of the 150,000 fans proudly waved their teams’ flags while chants could be heard, drowning out all other noise. Some of the more obnoxious fans set fire to toilet paper and other inflammable items, and near the end of the match, the Flamengo fans burns their flags. And oh yes, for the record, Vasco won, 1-0.
Monday, Aug. 10
Now I see why Rio is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. As I walked along the beach near our hotel, I could not help but notice the onrushing surf, the serene rocks and mountains in the background of our hotel, the Hotel Nacional, a cylindrical structure that looked like it would have been more at home in the 21st century.
Several feet away from me, L.I. coach Bill Easteadt had put his team through a unique practice on the beach, first running, then playing in 2 v 2 games. A couple of the American referees convinced me to join them in a game. Remember, the sand is like quicksand, ankle deep. It slows you down a bit.
I don’t remember the score, but I did have my moments, falling to the sand to tackle the ball away from an opponent (while my glasses when one way, I managed to knock the ball to a teammate), create a goal (thanks to the short, Brazilian style of play I adopted) and causing havoc (I stopped one Brazilian teenager on a breakaway, tripping him, knocking him into his own teammate. Not bad, taking out two players at once). I hustled, but one could have said I had bit of an attitude problem, constantly gasping for air while asking my teammates, “When’s halftime?”
Later in the day we visited Sugar Loaf, one of the highest and most spectacular views in Rio. There, I noticed, despite some 15 minutes under the shower, I had fine sand in my hair and on my arms and back. For the rest of the trip, my goal was to rid myself of the sand (I could see it now going through customs: “What do you have to declare Mr. Lewis?” “Oh, about three pounds of Brazilian sand”).
Tuesday, Aug. 11
It was back to business and the games at hand. The L.I. team was scheduled to play its first game some 30 miles into the mountains in a city called Petropolis (no, it’s not near Metropolis).
The trip and countryside was breathtaking, even more amazing than the trek to Santos next week. It was like being in heaven, only better, because you were alive.
Long Island did not fare too badly, playing the highly touted French side to a scoreless tie. We got back in time to attend an informative coaches’ seminar on the state of Brazilian soccer today. We got back at about 5:30 p.m. and the forum was scheduled for 6 p.m. But I was in the Brazilian swing of things. I took my time showering and dressing (that damn sand still stuck to my body) and showed up fashionably late for the function at 6:21. Not surprisingly, it did not start until 6:45.
The highlight of the meeting was the introduction of a coach who claimed to be a former Rochester Lancer (during the glory days of the North American Soccer League, I covered the old, lamented Lancers, a team you could write a highly rated situation comedy about). My jaw dropped. Lynn Berling, associate publisher of Soccer America who liked to joke that I knew more than anyone cared to know about the Lancers, was sitting next to me. I told her: “Lynn, You can’t escape them. They’re everywhere.”
Wednesday, Aug. 12
I have found Shangri-La and it is Brazil and Brazilian soccer. After watching some 20 soccer games in five weeks (I covered the FIFA Under-16 World Cup in Canada in July), I have reached a new level of enjoying a soccer game.
I sat by myself in the stands, my legs folded in a yoga position. Without getting too spiritual, I realize the (soccer) force was with me. And after this experience, I also realized I never could watch another soccer game on television again.
Somehow, that force was with Long Island, at least in the first half. Long Island looked like a Brazilian team and Tupi like Americans. Thanks to a patient, short-passing game, Long Island took a 1-0 lead, but a number of calls went against the side and the team and coach lost their composure and almost the game. It struggled to a 1-1 tie, leaving a bitter taste on undoubtedly its best performance of the trip.
This might be the best time to talk about my roommate in Rio, Randy Vogt of Syosset. Randy is an outgoing sort of a guy, known as the disco ref because of his black jacket with a Major Indoor Soccer League patch, and perhaps better known as doing a rendition of “Born in the USA” about this trip both in English and in French (“Je suis nais aux Etat-Unis”). I would not have minded it, but he tried out every possible line on yours truly.
Thursday, Aug. 13
OK, now its was time to get serious as the quarterfinals of the Rio portion started. As in other matches, the team played Queen’s “We Are the Champions” on the bus stereo system on the way to the match. It helped in previous encounters, but today’s match, if you dare to call it that, was no contest. Flamengo out shot Long Island, 14-1, in the first half. Long Island had one penetration into the penalty area in the half — some 19 minutes into the game. The final score: 5-1 and to be truthful, it was not even that close.
On the bus, the team was subdued, but the players were not ready to commit suicide. They were as upbeat as a group could be. In fact, they made the trip for me. While it was easy to complain about unusual traveling conditions, the players (some were 16-year-old old going on 20), rolled with the punches. It was great talking soccer, life, music, sports, girls/women with them. They made me feel young, and at times, 16 again.
In fact, they played a tape of Simon and Garfunkel, who sang “The Boxer” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” My God, I thought. I was their age when these songs came out. Talking about bridging the generation gap.
Then it was back to Rio for a seminar among Brazilian and U.S. media about which country should host the 1994 World Cup. The landslide consensus was the United States. While I gave my opinions supporting the United States, I looked up and noticed reporters taking notes. It was scary. My Gold, they actually were listening to what I had to say.
Earlier, when I walked to my spot on the panel, Pele, a member of the seminar noticed me. He got up and shook my hand. He remembered me from past interviews — in front of all those people. That made my night.
You’re got to see that man in action with people. He was gracious, courteous and charismatic. He is a walking definition of patience (there’s that world again), signing autographs and talking to people.
Friday, Aug. 14
I got together with some people I knew from Coca-Cola and visited several soccer clubs, interviewed the star of the Brazilian Under-20 national team, the general secretary of the Brazilian Football Confederation and former Cosmos star Julio Cesar Romero, better known as Romerito in South America.
To top off the day, I went to a samba that night. Like the scene at Maracana Stadium, it was more spectacle than anything else, considering I could not understand Portuguese — or whatever language — the participants were signing.
At one juncture, the lead singer started to mention countries to see what part of the audience was represented. He started with South America, then continued with Central American and the Caribbean.
Remembering the 44-hour, seven-stop trek down to Brazil, I told no one in particular: “Don’t laugh. That’s our itinerary home.”
Saturday, Aug. 15
The trip home — after a final, 105-degree day in Rio — was uneventful. We slept for most of the way, although it was not without its light moments. When we stopped in Manaus, that bustling city in the center of the Amazon, several people got off, including Soccer American columnist Paul Gardner. While he was gone for a good 20 minutes, we pulled his plane seat down and let an epitaph:
Jan. 29, 1837-Aug. 15, 1987
Lost in the Amazon
Naturally, he returned, read the piece of paper and said, “I don’t find this very funny.” I replied: “Well, we do and we outvote you, 3-1.”
Finally, after short stops in Brasilia, Manaus, Aruba and Orlando (OK, not so short, a seven-hour wait just in case our charter missed its mark), we hit New York soil at 9:53 p.m. Sunday.
It was quite an unforgettable trip, a trip of a lifetime.
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