Writer’s Note: I love watching and covering most all sports, but the main sport I played growing up was soccer. I took an amazing trip to Brazil 14 years ago that I’ve never written about until now. Here’s my story about playing soccer with Cruzeiro in the city of Belo Horizonte.
There I stood in the restroom, more than 4,000 miles from my hometown and even further away from the life I was accustomed to.
I held my Portuguese dictionary in my hand, thumbing through it to decipher the message on the wall. Was the hot water out to the only shower in the guard-protected dwelling that housed more than 20 aspiring Brazilian soccer players?
Was there a change in practice time or an important meeting? Whatever the message, it sparked my curiosity enough to walk up the stairs and retrieve my dictionary.
“Whoever stole my towel, please return it.”
I was a stranger in a strange land, a homesick 18-year-old whose only connection to my housemates was the ability to play soccer. Well, that and a four-bedroom house with an iron gate and palm trees doting the landscape.
And I had been the one who had stolen this guy’s towel, the only one he owned. I just assumed extra towels were left in the bathroom. Who only owns one towel in America?
I raced back up the stairs, retrieved the towel and folded it in the corner where I first discovered it. And I crossed my fingers that the person’s towel I stole wouldn’t discover the offender.
There was plenty I couldn’t be prepared for before I boarded a series of planes that would take me from Dallas to Miami to Rio to Belo Horizonte, a city of 2.5 million people a few hours north of Rio.
There was the visa snafu that delayed my trip by a week. The harrowing taxi ride from the airport that nearly ended with fisticuffs. The amazing skill of the soccer I was about to witness.
Travelling to Brazil was an opportunity out of the blue that was too good to turn down.
It’s not worth delving into my soccer-playing background too much, so we’ll stick to the basics. I grew up playing the game like most kids and found my niche as a goalkeeper. I played at a pretty high club level in Dallas and our team housed a Brazilian team (Cruzeiro) for a week during the Dallas Cup, one of the premier youth tournaments in the world.
After their stay in the tournament, a Cruzeiro coach offered me the chance to visit and train there during the summer. My dad at the time had free flying privileges with American Airlines and I had plenty of downtime before heading off to Midwestern State.
It was an opportunity of a lifetime and I jumped at the chance despite not knowing any Portuguese. I’ll never forget the experience.
“This is where my life is going to end,” I thought to myself while digging my nails into the backseat of the taxi.
I couldn’t figure out the miles-to-kilometers exchange rate, but I knew my scruffy-looking, middle-aged cabby was flying down the highway at an alarming, unsafe rate. I’d been abandoned at the Brazil airport for hours, so I wasn’t choosy when someone assisted me with getting a cab.
Once the speed demon entered the general vicinity of my landing point, it was obvious he had no clue where the address on the slip of paper I’d handed him was. Then we pulled up to an intersection but couldn’t move because a man was idling in a car in front of us.
My cabby honks… nothing. He yells from his car…. nothing. He leaves the car at the same time the perturbed driver gets out. There’s lots of yelling and shaking fists. Obviously not an optimal situation.
“Great,” I thought. “My cab driver is about to get his ass kicked and I’m going to be beaten up since I’m a witness/accomplice.”
At best I’m stranded in an unknown place still needing a ride. Luckily, the other guy jumped back in his car and drove off.
I’m not sure what I expected before I arrived, but this is what I arrived to. A house with four bedrooms that housed 5-6 guys in a room surrounded by a guard who made sure the players came and went when planned. I had a bed and that was about it.
It wasn’t the only Cruzeiro-owned house, either. There were a few of them, with each housing different age groups of players. Every morning we walked down a short hill to a myriad of pristine fields. The complex also had a conference building and a kitchen/outdoor dining area.
It was a regimented lifestyle. You lined up and ate breakfast, changed into their soccer attire (good thing I brought a whole suitcase of my own soccer clothes) and went to practice. There were a couple hours for a nap, lunch, an afternoon practice and dinner. The nights were free, but there wasn’t much to do. I know a couple of these guys were taking night classes, but the majority had little education and were putting their entire hopes and dreams in a sport that millions of Brazilians play.
And what talent it was. I was no stranger to competitive U.S. youth soccer, but what I witnessed in Brazil couldn’t hold a candle. They had deft touch and powerful shots. Every player’s moves were so ingrained you knew they had spent years perfecting them on soccer fields strewn across the country.
Once in a scrimmage, I hurled a ball down the field trying to connect with one of my teammates, only to see a forward intercept it 25 yards out and one-time volley the ball right back at me off the post. It was amazing.
Fortunately for me, one of my roommates Luis was the only one who spoke English and had an automobile. Two things that I’d always taken for granted in high school were paramount to my existence now.
I remember watching a Brazil World Cup qualifier in the living room with the guys, who grew more and more nervous until Brazil scored a late goal against Uruguay.
The next night – which happens to exactly be 14 years from today – I went with some guys to Estádio Mineirão to watch the Cruzeiro team play a Brazilian league game.
The stadium holds about 65,000 – it’s being used in the World Cup right now – and I remember the chants sung, mammoth flags waved and what looked like blow torches lighting up the night.
Making the night even better was Alonso – one of the two guys who stayed at my parents’ house during the Dallas Cup – had been promoted from the U19 team to the main squad. Then an injury had landed him in the starting lineup, and he delivered an assist and drew the game-clinching penalty kick.
There were a few non-soccer items that stuck out about my trip. Pizza served there has bacon and corn on it. When Alonso’s girlfriend took me to the local zoo, I remember a man making a drink purely out of sugarcane. It wasn’t my cup of tea.
Alonso took me high up into the nearby mountains to look over the sprawling metropolis. I remember being impressed with the bright, sparkling lights on the sides of hills at night. Those were the favelas, and by day, the slums – stacked and stacked with makeshift houses – were less than attractive.
But I must admit I was incredibly homesick. While I was able to immerse myself in a different culture, the days of soccer were long and it was often very lonely. Going off to college two months later wouldn’t be a problem at all.
I’m a father now, which puts more perspective in a lot of things in life. And I just can’t see myself allowing my 18-year-old son to travel to another continent by himself, especially without having a way to contact him frequently.
Remember, this was before cell phones and social media. I tried sending one email in my nearly two-week stay back to my parents, and it didn’t go through because I messed up my dad’s work address.
Here’s how naïve my family was. We get to the airport for my departure in mid-June and I’m asked for a visa at the front counter.
“I don’t have a credit card. I’m sorry,” I said to the guy running the check-in. I had no idea what a visa was at the time.
Apparently you had to get special permission to enter Brazil. So my parents and I left the DFW Airport and waited a week for the Brazilian Consulate in Houston to expedite a visa.
It’s been 14 years since I made the once-in-a-lifetime trip. For years, I’ve always wished I would have gotten off the plane in Rio and explored the city for a couple days. Probably safer that I didn’t, though.
I wonder about what happened to Luis, who without his car and his English would have made my trip a lot more difficult. He wasn’t one of the top players, and I remember he was just as homesick for his native Brasilia, which was several hours away.
I wonder about Alonso, who a few years ago when I played FIFA 2008 on XBOX could be found on the Portuguese roster of Nacional. He was one of the lucky ones who made it – so many talented players down there flame out and have nothing to fall back on. It’s sad, really.
I wonder what happened to the charming, pestering kid who always talked his way into the common area by the fields. Like many, he was intrigued by meeting an American and always wanted to check out my possessions. I ended up giving him my Penn State hat.
That trip was an eternity ago. I’ve graduated college, married, and now I have two kids with another on the way this November. I’ve learned so many life lessons since then. I also learned a few on that trip.
I’ve been watching and writing about the World Cup fervently these past couple weeks, enjoying the beautiful soccer and captivating finishes.
Man, I wish I could go back right now and soak in the atmosphere. It’d be another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I guess there’s a reason why you never get two of those.