Soccer

Julio Mazzei, the Cosmos and the Untold Story of the Man behind the Glasses (Part One)

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Who’s That Guy?

Professor Julio Mazzei (left) & Franz Beckenbauer
Professor Julio Mazzei (left) & Franz Beckenbauer (Photo: Getty Images)

Less than a minute into the 2006 documentary Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos and simultaneous with the opening credits, the figure of an unidentified individual enters the frame.

He approaches from the extreme right-hand side of the screen. Wearing sweatpants, a green-and-white baseball cap, matching green-and-white jacket, and aviator-style glasses, the gentleman joins Cosmos winger Steve Hunt and midfielder Nelsi Morais in congratulating their team’s superstar, the incomparable Pelé. We see him mouth the word “GOAL!” as he moves in for an impromptu group hug of the above-named players.

In the blink of an eye he’s gone, to be replaced by other “golden-age” highlights of the era including familiar voiceovers and more than a few talking heads.

As the film progresses, this anonymous entity continues to put in an appearance at key moments in the story. And not just side-by-side with Pelé, but with the members of the extended Cosmos “family,” most notably Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, German midfielder Franz Beckenbauer, fellow Brazilian Carlos Alberto, Warner Communications chief Steve Ross, and a host of influential others.

He can even be spotted in numerous photographs, snapshots, video clips, and film footage covering the eight-year period from 1974 to 1982. In all, he is shown a grand total of fifteen times during the course of the feature.

Beckenbauer, Pele & Giorgio Chinaglia of the New York Cosmos ca. 1977
Beckenbauer, Pele & Giorgio Chinaglia of the New York Cosmos, ca. 1977

However, the most surprising thing about this person is that he is never labeled or acknowledged in any of the scenes or photos he appears in, not even when serving as Pelé’s interpreter at the legendary 21 Club in Manhattan.

No doubt there is a valid reason why this fellow is pictured so prominently (albeit fleetingly) throughout the documentary. One should add that the bespectacled gentleman in question remains the unsung “hero” of the Cosmos organization, one of several participants who helped legitimize the game of soccer in the U.S. — and who, along with a player named Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka Pelé, made the sport what it is today.

That fellow is Julio Mazzei. And this is his untold story.

It’s been claimed that Mazzei and Pelé were bonded to each other in a uniquely symbiotic relationship. The Professor, as he was called by those who knew him (by virtue of advanced degrees in physical education, coaching, and sports and recreation), would often make light of his closeness to, and association with, the world’s greatest soccer player: “People assumed we were joined at the hip,” was how he jokingly phrased it.

But the joke was on them, for in ways both inevitable and prophetic it was their mutual participation in the sport that brought these two personable talents together.

Professor with Pele
Professor Mazzei with Pele (Photo: TheOriginalWinger.com)

Born on August 27, 1930 in the town of Guaiçara, in the interior of the state of São Paulo, Brazil, Mazzei came from a large family of Italian extraction. He grew up surrounded by sports, principally the one favored by his ethnic background (calcio in Italian, or futebol as Brazilians like to refer to it). While he was still small, the family moved to the municipality of Araçatuba, and later to Araraquara. It was in both these cities that Mazzei’s life-long passion for group sports and physical activity were cultivated and expanded.

In the early 1950s, Mazzei temporarily left Brazil to study at the Institut National des Sports in Paris. A year later, he and his bride, Maria Helena, traveled to Michigan State University in East Lansing, where Mazzei continued his postgraduate studies in sports education. Learning and speaking English was another of Professor’s principal achievements. In the interim, Dona Helena occupied herself with natural childbirth classes, which she took full advantage of later on in order to assist expectant soccer wives during their labor.

Professor became affiliated with Palmeiras Soccer Club in São Paulo around the year 1962, where his love of coaching and training was first put to the test. In 1965, after expressing dissatisfaction with the Palmeiras organization, Mazzei moved with his young family to the beachfront community of Santos in the capacity of the club’s conditioning coach and assistant trainer. This was also the team where the sixteen-year-old Pelé had gotten his start. In addition to which Mazzei was the assistant coach to the Brazilian national team from 1964 to 1965.

Julio Mazzei (far left) with coach Lula of Palmeiras F.C.
Julio Mazzei (far left) with coach Lula (center with cigarette in mouth) of Palmeiras F.C.

In the years before Professor and Pelé were invited to come to New York, Mazzei had developed the physical conditioning methods (known variously as Interval-Training and Circuit-Training) that would make him a known quantity in his native country. He would go on to guide that “goal-scoring machine” called Santos and, eventually, the New York Cosmos into the championship clubs they eventually became.

Upon leaving Brazil, Mazzei joined the Cosmos organization in 1975 as a fitness instructor and assistant coach, and in 1979 he became the auxiliary coach. He went on to serve on the board of directors from 1980 to 1982, when he was appointed the team’s head coach through November 1983. When he left the team, Mazzei had the highest percentage of wins of any of the North American Soccer League’s coaches.

None of this background is indicated or even hinted at in Once in a Lifetime. To those unfamiliar with Mazzei’s extraordinary contributions to the game, he’s a faintly elusive individual in soccer history, a somewhat shadowy behind-the-scenes figure who occupies the fringes of yesterday’s sports pages. This is a misconception the film inadvertently perpetuates and which this piece will endeavor to correct.

In my mind, the real issue is why a man of Professor’s unquestioned qualifications and repute went unmentioned in the 97-minute retelling of the decade-long rise and precipitous fall of the Cosmos soccer team and the accompanying North American Soccer League.

For that, we must delve into the documentary itself.

No Fat Ladies Allowed, Only Fat Men

1977 Cosmos: Carlos Alberto, Steve Hunt, Bobby Smith & Pele
1977 Cosmos: Carlos Alberto, Steve Hunt, Bobby Smith & Pele

The opening montage of Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos shows a variety of individuals talking about the team, and about the “best and worst of what soccer in America was” back in the mid- to late sixties. Narrated by actor Matt Dillon, directed by Paul Crowder and John Dower, and written by Mark Monroe, with the story credited to Mr. Monroe and Mr. Dower, the documentary is basically a tell-all record of the brief time when soccer first captured the attention of American sports fans.

We learn that soccer was imported to the U.S. by immigrants who came through the gates of Ellis Island. Much like the millions of other ethnicities that over a century ago came to this country, soccer was the property of “hyphenated” Americans: Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, German-Americans, Greek-Americans, and Slavic-Americans (even us Brazilian-Americans). No matter where they came from or what language they spoke, the thing these new arrivals had in common was their love for the game.

By way of comparison, the documentary mentions the copious starts-and-stops in American sports, for example, when seen on television and as demonstrated by those frequent breaks for commercial messages. These are contrasted with soccer’s continuous ebb and flow with no natural breaks — except, of course, for halftime activities and timeouts for unexpected injuries.

Shifting gears, we transition to tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano singing the aria, “Nessun dorma” (“No one sleeps”), from Puccini’s last opera Turandot. “What is opera doing in a documentary about an American soccer team?” you might ask. As near as we can figure, it may have been an unsubtle signal about how the Cosmos players, including their top-drawer goal-scorers, would spend their “off hours” partying into the night. But that was still to come!

Soccer is likened here to a two-act play, whereby the game is concentrated into two action packed halves of 45-minutes duration each, with a 15-minute interval in between. Be that as it may, initially there was no passion for soccer in America during the first half of the twentieth century because, as strange as it may seem (especially with all those new arrivals) there was no soccer at all — certainly not in 1960. We’re told the U.S. was a barren landscape for the sport, which I can personally vouch for.

Enter Mr. Steve Ross, a charismatic, highly successful businessman who went on to develop the media aspects of the game from scratch. Ross did this before those titans of cable-TV land, Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, had begun to make their own mark in the broadcasting field.

Ahmet & Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records fame
Ahmet & Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records fame

There were others beside Ross who actively campaigned to transform the American brand of soccer into something else entirely — specifically, two brothers from Turkey, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, who founded the R&B label, Atlantic Records. They brought to the northern hemisphere a fanatical devotion to the sport as well as a knack for spotting latent talent.

Moving on to the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley Stadium between England and West Germany, England won the game in overtime. As an impressionable twelve-year-old boy, I distinctly remember watching the final with my father and younger brother on ABC-TV, the only network that transmitted the live event to our apartment. At the time, football was about to enter its prime, with the Super Bowl and some extremely successful teams flourishing and coming into their own. This made the competition for ratings and TV airtime fiercer than ever.

Four years later, a pivotal matchup occurred between two-time champions Brazil and Italy at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico City where Pelé made his final tournament appearance. Unlike the previous cup, this time there wasn’t a single TV station in the greater metropolitan area that bothered to show either the qualifying matches or the final. For that, our family had to take the IRT subway line to Madison Square Garden to see the games on giant closed-circuit screens.

In the meantime, Ross brought the Atlantic Records division into the Warners fold and with it the Ertegun brothers’ worship of the game. With Brazil’s third World Cup victory fresh in their minds, these two farsighted entrepreneurs saw the potential for starting a homegrown soccer team literally from scratch. In fact, they were unabashed in singing the sport’s praises to a somewhat skeptical but willing-to-try-anything Mr. Ross.

Steve Ross getting his "kicks" at Giants Stadium, the Meadowlands
Steve Ross getting his “kicks” at Giants Stadium, the Meadowlands

As a result of their efforts, Clive Toye was hired as general manager of the nameless team. Almost immediately Toye began to recruit players. But what the franchise needed above all else was a catchy name and a star attraction. Once the “Cosmos” moniker was agreed upon, British head coach Gordon Bradley was welcomed aboard in 1971. Back then, the newly christened team was comprised of such unknowns as Werner Roth, Shep Messing, Randy Horton, and a ragtag collection of semi-professionals. As the saying goes, big things come from small beginnings. And they couldn’t have come any smaller than this bunch.

From its conception the Cosmos had been playing their matches at Hofstra University in Long Island. To persuade the fans to come to their games, Ross made the shrewd decision to move the team closer to the city, to Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island. That was in 1974. Despite this bold maneuver, the Cosmos still needed a high-profile player to draw the crowds and make both the team and the league as financially lucrative as possible.

But who would be willing to join a no-name, startup soccer league in America — and for what price?

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

End of the Rainbow — The Curtain Falls on Brazil’s National Team at the 2014 World Cup

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The Soccer Lady Sings: “Deutschland Über Alles!”

"Oh, it's only a game!" Felipao grasps German coach's hand (dailystar.com)
“Oh well, it’s only a game!” Felipao grasps German coach’s hand (dailystar.com)

The other day at work someone asked me, “Hey, Joe, who’s it going to be, Brazil or Germany?” The answer came loud and clear: “My head tells me Germany, but my heart says Brazil.” The heart speaks plainly, but I should have listened to my head.

I had committed the same grievous decision that Costa Rican coach Jorge Luis Pinto made in choosing to keep his battered goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, in the penalty round with the formidable Dutch substitute Tim Krul. My problem, as much as it was coach Pinto’s, was to let sentiment get in the way of my better judgment.

Not even Mel Brooks, the celebrated director, humorist, and screenwriter of such comedy classics as The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein — yes, THAT Mel Brooks — could have dreamed up a more ludicrous scenario than the semifinal “contest” between host nation Brazil and top-rated Germany.

Can anyone explain what happened to Brazil’s national team on Tuesday, July 8, 2014? The only words that come to mind are shock, awe, dismay, anger, disbelief, betrayal, rage, and any number of choice epithets.

The above date will stand in the collective memory of Brazilian soccer fans as the most disgraceful performance put on by their national team since the World Cup debacle of 1950.

Sixty-four years ago, Brazil lost the final match to Uruguay at the newly built Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, designed for the specific purpose of showcasing the country’s prowess in the world’s favorite sport.

The score was tied 1-1 early in the second half. With barely 11 minutes left to play, two hundred thousand incredulous cariocas witnessed a Lilliputian opponent score the winning goal and wrest the coveted title of World Cup champion away from soccer-crazed Brazil.

Time and distance have blurred the reminiscences of this infamous event. But suffice it to say that it took eight years for stunned Brazilians to recover from that disastrous rout before such soccer luminaries as Pelé, Garrincha, Zito, Vavá, Didi, and others stepped up to meet the challenge in Sweden and hoist the first of five World Cup trophies.

Where are their likes today, may I ask? And how long will it take for Brazil to wipe this latest catastrophic stain from their collective memories, and from their hearts?

La Grande Illusion

Julio Cesar & David Luiz hold up Neymar's jersey
Brazil’s Julio Cesar & David Luiz hold up Neymar’s jersey

The fervor with which the crowd greeted the singing of Brazil’s hino nacional (national anthem) at Tuesday’s semifinal match, in particular the way that goalie Júlio Cesar and captain pro tempore David Luiz held up their fallen comrade Neymar’s number 10 jersey — in the words of one journalist, “as if it were a holy relic” — made it known to the world that the country’s national team would boldly carry on despite his and Thiago Silva’s absence.

After the match was over, I could only commiserate with my fellow Brazil watchers as to the fatal outcome. There was no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, no sirree. Instead, we were witnesses to the bursting of the Brazilian bubble, a grande ilusão do carnaval (“the great illusion of Carnival”) in the lyrics to the Tom Jobim-Vinicius de Moraes tune, “A Felicidade” (“Happiness”).

The song starts off with this melancholy phrase: “Tristeza não tem fim, felicidade sim” – “Sadness has no end, but happiness does.” Truer words were never spoken!

It’s tempting for disheartened Brazilians, both in the country and abroad, to pile on the loathing for their failed national team. And heaven knows plenty of bile has already been spilled on social media, Twitter, and elsewhere over their loss to the German war machine. However, I shall resist the temptation to throw more fuel onto the fire and leave that distasteful task to others.

But the question still remains: how could such a staggering exhibition of ineptitude by a major soccer nation, if not THE major soccer nation, have slipped by unnoticed?

“We Are the Hollow Men”

I’ve been critical of the Brazilian national team’s lackadaisical attitude before in my pieces about the 1998 loss to France, and especially the substandard World Cup run of 2006 (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/soccer-field-of-fractured-dreams-brazil-2006-world-cup-debacle-part-one/). I stand by what I wrote then, which goes double for the events of today. That year, it was Portugal, a country that shares Brazil’s language and much of its cultural heritage, who took the honors as the Lusitanian upstarts who fought the hardest for king and country… and lost.

Their coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, or Felipão (Big Phil), was the individual responsible for much of the Portuguese players’ gung-ho attitude. Believe it or not, he’s the same Luiz Felipe Scolari whose national team won the 2002 World Cup, and today just about lost their shirts (and their guts) to the swifter, taller, and unbelievably more agile Deutschlanders. What went wrong, people?

Some say there was a last-minute change in the starting lineup, which led to a breakdown in communication on the field. Others blame the emotion of the moment, i.e., the passion that superseded all practical matters, to the banishment of proper pregame planning.

ESPN commentators Michael Ballack & Alexi Lalas
ESPN commentators Michael Ballack & Alexi Lalas

While we’re on the subject, ESPN commentator Michael Ballack, a veteran of Germany’s 2002 and 2006 World Cup campaigns, posed the theory that Brazil had no Plan B — which is absurd, since in many people’s minds (including my own) there was never a Plan A to begin with.

It could’ve been a whole range of possibilities, from the fact that Brazil, as the host nation, wasn’t required to participate in any of the qualifying matches. Politics may likewise have played a hand in the mess, but that’s not entirely satisfactory. Another ESPN analyst, former midfielder Gilberto Silva, who contributed to Brazil’s 2002 championship effort against their Teutonic rivals, actually praised Germany for having completely reshaped the team into the world-class contenders they are today.

“There needs to be a broader examination of how [Brazil] played,” Silva noted. “The team faced a difficult opponent and they could not cope.” Ballack was more forthright in his evaluation: “They weren’t prepared.”

Alexi Lalas, the third opinion-maker in the commentator’s chair and a former Team USA World Cup participant himself, offered this analysis: “Passion and emotion are not going to take you through, not against someone like Germany. You got to have players.”

From Alexi’s comment, it was evident that Brazil’s alleged proficiency on the pitch had been accomplished through smoke and mirrors — that is, the Mirror of Erised (the word “Desire” spelled backwards). For those who are unaware of its deeper meaning, the term “Mirror of Erised” derives from the Harry Potter series.

In the words of Albus Dumbledore, the Dean of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the Mirror of Erised is a device that reflects the “deepest and most desperate desire of one’s heart,” which, in Brazil’s case, would equate to her dream of winning a sixth World Cup title.

All the country’s efforts were geared toward the realization of this dream, cost be damned. Commencing in 2007, when Brazil won the right to stage the quadrennial event, a million bags of cement, along with billions upon billions of local dollars, had been poured into building and/or renovating a minor kingdom of soccer stadiums in-and-around the principal sites where group matches were to be held.

Despite the Brazilian government’s lavish spending spree, a large portion of the projects had yet to be completed by the time of the opening whistle in early June 2014, a span of seven years. In addition, they had neglected to provide the requisite all-star players to do honor to the country’s soccer legacy. As a result, Brazil’s ignominious 7-1 defeat last Tuesday at the hands of the Germans would be the straw that broke this camel’s back.

According to MY calculations, that’s one goal for every year it took to bring the World Cup to fruition. Nice going, guys!

The Fickle Finger of Fate

You’ll pardon me if I don’t bring up the depressing first-half statistics of that by-now notorious “shooting” spree, where, in a six-minute sequence, four of the half’s five goals were placed into the Brazilian net. While the slaughter was still going on, I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was if I were watching back-to-back reruns of The Twilight Zone, with the movie Groundhog Day thrown in as an added enticement, beckoning me to stay tuned for further suffering.

Curious readers can get their fill of the gory details elsewhere, if they are so inclined. As for this writer, I prefer to let this World Cup speak for itself.

From the start, the “Hand of God” moment was all over the 2014 tournament. The heavy smell of divine retribution was in the air, with the Flying Dutchmen of Holland being the first to feel its wrath.

In a portent of things to come, the Netherlands trounced 2010 champion Spain in their one-sided 5-1 win. At best, it was a Pyrrhic victory, for during their quarterfinal match with Costa Rica the Dutch bested the efforts of goalie Navas, by going 4-3 in penalty kicks. However, the tables were turned on Holland in their semifinal marathon with Argentina. After two hours of scoreless play in the driving rain, the exhausted Dutch Masters had little fuel left for their shootout with the colossal Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero. You could say they were running on empty.

Ah, but the soccer gods are jealous deities who must constantly be appeased. With a wave of his monstrous arms, Romero pounded his chest à la Mighty Joe Young in a self-congratulatory gesture of approbation for his outstanding skills at stopping the best the Dutch had to offer.

In the same manner in which they had triumphed over Costa Rica, the Netherlands lost to Argentina on penalty kicks, 4-2. And Argentina had the last laugh. Why is that? Because in 1986, their most famous player, Diego Maradona, scored a miraculous shot into the British goal via the so-called “Hand of God” — more fittingly, the “Fickle Finger of Fate,” or Maradona’s wrist-action motion whereby he flicked the ball over the head of goalie Peter Shilton and into the net, with the accompanying cries of “handball” going unheard.

Not only was God’s unseen hand at work that afternoon, but His ears were deaf to the pleas of supplicants to reverse the referee’s decision. Argentina won the quarterfinal match against England and went on to triumph over Germany for their second World Cup title. And now, Argentina has another chance to meet and beat Germany for a fourth World Cup title. Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah! Take that, Netherlands!

Diego Maradonas's "Hand of God" moment
Diego Maradona’s 1986 “Hand of God” moment

The most blatant “Hand of God” moment of this World Cup, however, occurred earlier in the week when Brazil’s star striker Neymar felt a well-placed Colombian knee to his back in another quarterfinal battle. The result of that encounter: a fractured vertebra that forced Neymar to bow out of Tuesday’s disastrous contest with Deutschland. We should be so lucky.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

As a way of encapsulating the events of Brazil’s 7-1 drubbing at the hands not only of God but of a superior soccer foe, let me conclude this postmortem with a story.

It’s the classic tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, handed down by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Readers may recall the plot of this beloved children’s fable, about a vain Emperor whose only ambition in life was to wear the finest clothes that money could buy. He was so vain, in fact, that everywhere he went, whether it was to attend the theater or a meeting of his ministers, he would show off his fancy finery to their fullest.

One day, two swindlers heard of the spendthrift Emperor and decided to make a killing at the monarch’s expense. Posing as a tailor and a weaver, respectively, the two charlatans convinced the gullible Emperor they could spin a set of clothing so uncommonly fine and so magnificent in fabric and color, that only those who were unfit for office, or unusually stupid, would be unable to see the clothes with their naked eyes.

Suitably intrigued, the Emperor immediately gave the two swindlers a vast sum of gold and money, and whatever else their hearts desired, in order to make him a superb set of clothing. Pretending to work the looms, the swindlers went about spinning and weaving and going through the motions, although there was absolutely nothing to look at. The looms remained empty to the eye.

David Luiz after Brazil's 7-1 loss to Germany
David Luiz after Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany

Although several of the Emperor’s ministers were sent to the workroom to report on the swindlers’ progress, none of them admitted to seeing the empty looms. They were convinced, as the Emperor undoubtedly was, that if they failed to notice the rich fabrics the two crooks had woven, then they would be admitting they too were unfit for office, or were unusually stupid. God forbid that were to happen!

Pocketing the Emperor’s fortune as they went about their business, the swindlers were prepared to fleece their dupe for all he was worth. Finally, the day arrived when the Emperor would try on his fabulous new wardrobe. When he entered the workroom, the Emperor was dumbfounded: there was nothing for him to wear. However, there was no way he was going to admit it. “I’m no fool! I’m not unfit for office!” he thought to himself. So the Emperor went along with the gag, as did his ministers and entourage.

“Magnificent! Superb! What excellent craftsmanship!” the Emperor cried out in glee. “I can’t wait to parade my new clothes before the whole town!” On the day of the procession, the two swindlers dressed the Emperor themselves, so convinced were they of their cleverness in hoodwinking the royal fool.

As the procession made its way around town, the cheering populace “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed” at the richness of the sovereign’s attire. No one would dare speak the truth for fear of offending the Emperor, or worse, for admitting they were too stupid to notice he hadn’t worn any clothes.

Suddenly, a little child came out of the crowd. With a ringing voice, he shouted to his father, “But he hasn’t got anything on!” The father was stunned at his son’s brashness and tried to explain away his remark. But the boy repeated his comment: “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

Soon, everyone was whispering to one another. And the whispers grew louder and more pronounced: “Look! It’s true! Oh, my goodness, the Emperor has no clothes!”

Embarrassed and confused, the Emperor realized that the boy and the rest of the townspeople were correct in their assessment. But he dare not admit it in public, for he had been conned into believing the image the two swindlers had crafted for him. And what was worse, he had given himself over to the illusion created by those two unscrupulous connivers.

There he stood, helpless and alone. And on he marched, as proud as a peacock — and as shamefaced and naked as the day he was born.

The moral to the story: the Emperor represents Brazil and/or her national team (you can work in FIFA as well). The swindlers are Brazil’s coach and his staff (or FIFA again). The townspeople are the fans in the stadium and throughout the televised world.

The Crying Child (huffingtonpost.com)
The Crying Child (huffingtonpost.com)

And the boy? Why, he’s the crying child in the audience, the one who sadly realized the image of invincibility that Brazil’s national team had so carefully crafted over the years was nothing more than an illusion. And why was he crying? Because that day, the boy learned the illusion had vanished forever.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Fractured Fairy Tales and Unhappy Endings at the Quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup

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Cinderellas Turned into Pumpkins

Colombia in red, Brazil in yellow (www.nytimes.com)
Colombia in red, Brazil in yellow (www.nytimes.com)

After the thrilling Round of 16, World Cup Soccer fans were treated to an extended Fourth of July weekend of action-packed quarterfinal matches.

I wouldn’t be giving anything away to announce that prior to the quarters all eight of the so-called favorites (as determined, I guess, by odds-makers in the know) had won their various match-ups. Not ONE of the underdog nations was able to overcome those odds. Such upstart teams as those from Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Greece, Nigeria, Algeria (who gave the Germans the most difficulty), Switzerland and Team USA all failed in their quest to make it past heavily favored Brazil, the aforementioned Germany, the Netherlands, or Argentina — all ranked in the top five.

With the exception of former world champion Spain, who sputtered out early in the tournament, that left the above four favorites to join Colombia, Costa Rica, Belgium and France in the knockout field-of-eight round.

Starting with the French, Les Bleus did their best to stem the rising Teutonic tide — which wasn’t easy, what with the poised German strikers possessing a clear height advantage and near pinpoint accuracy. Blessed with the likes of Thomas Müller, Miroslav Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mezut Özil, and Mats Hummels, Germany took the lead off Hummels’ header in the 12th minute of play. It was enough to put them into the semis against Brazil on Tuesday, July 8, in Belo Horizonte.

He Came, He Saw, He Fouled

Uh, about last Friday’s quarterfinal win against Colombia, the cost of Brazil’s 2-1 victory may have been too high for fans to bear. Team captain Thiago Silva was yellow-carded, and will miss the semifinal match with Germany, due to his pointless blocking and unnecessary roughness of Colombia’s goalie Ospina. With no adequate substitute in sight, it’s difficult to believe how his absence can be anything but bad news for the Brazilians.

Collision with Colombia
Brazil goalie Julio Cesar: Collision with Colombia

In another, perhaps even more “necessary” foul, goalkeeper Júlio Cesar tackled Colombian attacker Carlos Bacca in the penalty area, earning another yellow card and a penalty kick to boot. James Rodriguez, Colombia’s 22-year-old superstar, converted it into his country’s lone goal, giving his teammates hope of “possibly” conquering Brazil. Not a chance, fellas!

But the most egregious display of the match involved Brazil’s own superstar striker Neymar, who was hit from behind by the knee of Colombia’s Zuñiga. Neymar was dutifully carried off the field in a stretcher. He was later reported to have sustained a fractured rib in his struggle for possession of the ball, and will be out of action for the next six weeks. Obviously, Neymar is not expected to play in the semi as well.

So where was the referee while all this was happening? And what did he do about this flagrant abuse of the rules? According to one of the ESPN commentators (I believe it was Ian Darke, my favorite sports announcer, I don’t mind telling you), the Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo must have left his cards at home. During the first half of the match, not once did Carballo single out a rule infraction — and there were an indecent number of them, to be perfectly frank. All were dismissed with a wave of the ref’s hand. Is this any way to officiate, FIFA? If Sr. Carballo had started issuing yellow cards at the outset, Brazil might not have lost Neymar for the duration of the Cup; or at the very least, we might’ve been spared the spectacle of having the young talent taken off the field writhing in pain — not the most comforting sight for his followers.

No doubt the cards are heavily stacked against Brazil in their upcoming bout with the Bully Boys of Germany. Still, I have a feeling the game’s not over until the Soccer Lady sings! And she’s going to sing a happy tune in Belo Horizonte. Why do I say this? Because Brazil FINALLY started to play like the five-time World Cup champions they are. The addition of Maicon to the starting lineup gave a kick-start to the team’s offensive push.

Adversity sometimes makes squads stronger. Look at Mexico against the Dutch, or Chile versus Brazil: both sides took the fight to their opponents, but good. If Mexico and Chile lost, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Each gave it their all, and they can leave this Cup with heads held high (well… most of them, anyway).

The same can be said for Belgium, who fought the good fight against Argentina. Lionel Messi scrambled about in unstoppable fashion, as is his wont, thus confusing the opposition by running this way and that. Argentina’s only goal in their 1-0 battle, however, came off one of Messi’s passes, first to teammate Di Maria, and then on the rebound to Gonzalo Higuaín, who fired a half-volley shot safely into the net and beyond the reach of Belgian goalie Thibaut Courtois, who was more tortoise (accent on the “French” pronunciation in this instance) than Courtois.

Infractions, We Have Infractions (But No Red Cards)

Costa Rica praying for a miracle
Costa Rica’s Los Ticos pray for a miracle

The final brawl of the afternoon occurred when the never-say-die Netherlands met the Cinderellas of the tournament, Costa Rica, the unlikeliest of candidates for World Cup stardom. Making it to the quarterfinals on a hope and a prayer if not their fairy godmother, the guileless Los Ticos had met every challenge posed to them. But this time, they were unable to withstand the ruthless onslaught that such powerful Dutch forwards as Arjen Robben, Wesley Snejder and Robin Van Percie unleashed. It was 120+ minutes of non-stop pounding of Costa Rica’s goalie, the heroic Keylor Navas, who was able to shut down the Flying Dutchmen until the dreaded penalty shootout.

It was here that Holland’s coach, Louis van Gaal (a dead-ringer for William Shatner of Star Trek fame, but with a broken nose) and his bench of assistants (Dutch Mad Men in gray-flannel business suits and orange ties) took a gamble and came up with their game-winning strategy: to substitute the goalie of the match, Jasper Cillessen, for the fresher arms and legs of the gigantic Tim Krul. Physically smaller in comparison, Navas did his best to block the Netherland’s penalty kicks, but his best wasn’t enough to turn the tide. Krul stopped two of the Costa Rican’s tepid shots on goal, thereby giving the Dutch Masters a semifinal berth against the Argentines.

Costa Rican goalie Keylor Navas on the ground
Costa Rican goalie Keylor Navas on the ground

Which brings me to my closing argument. There are now four teams left standing in the Cup, two more matches to go before the final confrontation: Brazil vs. Germany, and Netherlands vs. Argentina, both to take place next Tuesday at 3 o’clock PM (our time). I wish all these squads the very best of luck — they’ll need it! And may the best team win. However, a word of caution: may they win by honest means. By that, I mean let fate have a hand in their victory, not in their face.

In my first post about the 2014 World Cup, I mentioned the unavoidable “Hand of God” moment. To quote from my own writings, “All we need now is another ‘Hand of God’ moment (I’m referring, of course, to Argentine player Diego Maradona’s phantom goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England) to lend illegitimacy to an already dubious reputation that the Federation Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, has no doubt fostered.”

Well, dear readers, that moment came to pass. Earlier in the Netherlands vs. Costa Rica encounter, the “Hand of God” struck Navas across the eyes and forehead. To put it bluntly, it was more the eleventh-hour Dutch substitute Huntelaar’s outstretched arm that blatantly tried to interfere with Navas’ goal-tending skills. Down went Navas, and out came the referee’s yellow card — which, in my opinion, and after the still earlier roughness of Colombia’s goalie by Brazil, as well as Brazil’s own roughing up of an opposing player, was the perfect time for a RED card. Not this time, folks, thanks to another of those card-free referees.

I fear that sentiment by the Costa Rican coach Jorge Luis Pinto may have overruled tactics in keeping Navas on as goalie. Although a substitute was waiting in the wings, Pinto’s heart took the place of his head in making his fateful decision. Frankly, I can’t blame him; better to have tried and lost than never to have tried at all. To replace Navas as this late stage would have crushed Los Ticos’ fighting spirit.

Unfortunately, Navas’ subsequent poor state at the end, along with previous rough play at the goalmouth, may have contributed to his impaired ability to ward off the Netherland’s vicious penalty strikes — an unhappy ending to Costa Rica’s fairy-tale-like story. Did I say winning by “honest means”? A “Hand of God” moment? Make that “Fists of Fury.”

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Heartbreak Hotel — Team USA and Fellow Underdogs Check Out of 2014 World Cup

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Better Luck Next Time (in Overtime)

Team USA goalie Tim Howard saves another one (www.nytimes.com)
Team USA goalie Tim Howard saves another one (www.nytimes.com)

It was a heart-breaker. Oh, man, was it a heart-breaker! Down to the last 10 minutes of extra time after scoreless regulation play, the fired up Team USA bombarded Belgium’s six-foot-six-inch goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois with shot after shot, all to no avail.

After being down two goals to nothing, the U.S.’s German-born coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, decided to put in a 19-year-old substitute named Julian Green, who within a fraction of active field-time placed a tremendous volley into the farthest right-hand corner of the net, giving Team USA a needed shot in the arm. Yay! Go team, go!

USA goalie Tim Howard, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome but is one of the top five best gatekeepers in the business, must have been twitching about and jerking a blue streak throughout the offensive. It had no effect on his superb goalkeeping skills, though, with Howard setting a World Cup record of 16 saves.

But in a harrowing repeat of their 2010 performance in the Round of 16 at South Africa, whereby the U.S. lost a grueling 2-1 battle against Ghana, the Belgians belittled the American side by the same 2-1 margin in Tuesday’s match-up. Green’s goal came too little, too late for the totally spent USA squad to triumph over adversity. The heat and humidity sapped whatever strength Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, DaMarcus Beasley and their fellow World Cup underdogs Chile, Mexico, Greece, Uruguay, Nigeria, Algeria and Switzerland had stored up in order to press on.

You can’t blame the beastly weather on poor playing and even poorer officiating. Unforeseen injuries (the early loss of USA left winger Jozy Altidore due to a hamstring pull) and dubious penalty calls (or the lack of same) were other unnatural disasters that seemed to thwart these countries’ best efforts.

Beginning with the June 28 thriller between Brazil and Chile, it was frustrating to see the Chileans’ go down in infamy via penalty kicks after they miraculously made up a one-goal deficit in the 32nd minute at Belo Horizonte. The game dragged on to the inevitable shootout, with Brazil besting Chile three penalties to two, thus boosting Brazil’s chances in the quarterfinals against Colombia and sinking Chile’s chances for a first-ever bench.

The Colombians had a field day, too, so to speak, against the wary but ungainly Uruguayans. Without their star striker Luis Suárez, who was banned from Cup participation for his vampirish shoulder-biting episode against Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini in a previous match, Uruguay mostly fired blanks at the Colombian goal. Colombia and their own star performer James Rodriguez will meet Brazil and 22-year-old superstar Neymar (I wonder what color his hair will be this time) later today in Fortaleza. Will the hot weather continue to be a mitigating factor, or will Brazil shape up in time to change naysayers’ mind about Neymar’s potential?

Felipao comforting a weeping Neymar (www.goal.com)
Felipao comforting a weeping Neymar (www.goal.com)

Meanwhile, it’s been publicized that many of Brazil’s players have been undergoing psychological evaluation and/or treatment, if not makeshift sessions with their shrinks, due to the enormous pressure (i.e., post-traumatic soccer disorder) exerted on them by the Brazilian press as well as over-anxious politicians — among them Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, whose reelection bid comes up later this year.

If Brazil makes a strong showing of their soccer skills all should go well at the polls, or so the prevailing wisdom goes. But if the national team loses or makes a pitiable meal out of the remaining matches, all bets are off as to whether Dilma — and the country per se — can recover from the shock of a loss to a supposedly “lesser” opponent. It would be 1950 all over again, when the upstart Uruguayans beat Brazil 2-1 before 200,000 awed fans.

Mark my words: Colombia is no pushover. Neither are any of the other combatants in this year’s World Cup. It’s amazing that Brazil has made it this far, no thanks to the under-performing, one-man task force Hulk and the continuously problematic Marcelo. Fred and Dani Alves have been less than stellar in their initial appearances, the tall and lanky striker Jo was out-headed by a much smaller Chilean defender, and their goalie Julio Cesar needs to step up his game BIG TIME if he’s to withstand the coming onslaught.

Other matches in the days ahead include the anything-goes Netherlands, with their chief diving expert Arjen Robben leading the Orange pack against the rising Costa Ricans and their hero goalie Keylor Navas; a replay of World War I with a revitalized France vying for a chance at victory against the bully boys from Germany; and don’t-cry-for-me Argentina and their goal-scoring lethal weapon Lionel Messi playing the puffed up Belgians.

This 2014 tournament and the Round of 16 is shaping up to be one of the all-time most thrilling World Cups in recent memory.

Soccer’s “Advanced Technology” in the Digital Age

And now a word or two about the latest novelties to hit the World Cup Soccer pitch.

Vanishing spray - the latest technology
Vanishing spray – the latest technology

To paraphrase the philosopher Descartes, soccer exists, therefore it is. And in order to understand how soccer is played one must first attempt to play it. The same goes for most sporting events, including (and especially) baseball, American football, rugby, basketball, hockey, tennis, cricket, you name it.

But unlike the above-named activities, soccer (and by that, I mean World Cup Soccer) is one game that has the easiest to follow rules. Most of the trouble starts when folks get confused over the offside rule. If you’ve ever played the game, you’ll be able to pick this one up fairly easily. If not, just follow the bouncing ball: to put it in as simple a term as possible, there must be at least ONE defender (besides the goalie, of course) in between an attacker. If the attacker gets possession of the ball BEFORE there’s a defender, the attacker is declared to be offside.

Many people would like FIFA to dispense with the offside rule. Maybe, maybe not — but for purists (such as myself), that would be anathema. However, I am all for listening to the arguments pro and con. If it were eliminated, that might reduce the game to 90 minutes of free-for-all penalty shots or interminable kicks on goal. That’s just one scenario, but I’m sure there are plenty more out there.

I’m very much for advanced technology, to include instant replays on questionable calls by referees and other face-saving devices. Of course, the instant replay proposal has to be used with discretion. Otherwise, we might as well call the Cup an International Super Bowl with the inherent stop-and-go non-action taking precedent.

I loved the new goal technology, however, which can correctly predict whether the ball has in fact crossed the goal bar or not. But that low-tech, foamy lather shaving cream (vanishing spray?) the refs have been using to keep jittery players “in line” during free kicks is a joke! Is that the best that FIFA can do? Still, if it works… why argue with success?

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Brazil’s World Cup Runneth Over with Song — The Best of the Best by the Best

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Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66
Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66

Ever have one of those days when you’re forced to use your head in making a last-minute decision while the pressure of a deadline looms stealthily in the distance?

No, I don’t mean on the soccer field. Certainly, Team USA’s dramatic, make-or-break victory over Ghana on Monday came down to the wire, with the U.S. coming up the winner off John Brooks’ incredible “head” shot in the 86th minute of play. Nothing I inscribe could ever be as heart-stopping as that moment, but I do digress.

To this point, I received an e-mail from musician Ken Avis, whose band Veronneau recently appeared at Strathmore’s Jazz Samba Project Festival in North Bethesda, Maryland — about which I will be devoting extensive coverage during the weeks to come.

“I’ve just had an unexpected request from the Washington Post,” Ken wrote the other night, “with an urgent deadline.” And here we go: “Very lightly defined, but they would like a playlist of eight to ten songs to add to an article about the Brazil World Cup… a kind of reader’s primer on what to listen to in order to get into the mood.”

Okay, I thought, that sounds like something I could tackle. To continue the soccer analogy, I know for a fact the Brazilian National Team has often mixed samba into their joyous style of play. And this felt like a fun project all-around, something to relieve the stress from intensive World Cup viewing (now how can THAT be stressful…?).

“Just off the top of your head,” he continued, “what would you consider to be three or four Brazilian songs to hear and why? Your desert Island discs!”

As Heath Ledger’s Joker would say, “Now you’re talkin’!” It’s just the thing to wipe the summer heat away. My initial strategy was to suggest songs that would span the length and breadth of the country’s eclecticism.

Brazil is a musically diverse nation with a wide array of regional styles, genres, forms, and trends: from choro and maxixe, to samba, samba-canção, bossa nova, MPB, Tropicália, axé, frevo, forró, funk, and pagode, to name a few.

But if it’s desert island airs you want, naturally I’d have to start with the best of the best, the top of the heap, the A-Number 1 of them all:

1. “The Girl from Ipanema” – Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Ole Blue Eyes never sounded better when paired with Carioca maestro Tom Jobim, in what I dubbed a dry run for Sinatra’s later Duets album. Here, the Chairman of the Board soothes the ears in his quietest, most laid-back mode. “I haven’t sung this soft since the last time I had laryngitis,” he famously quipped afterwards. Sure, Frankie. Anything you say…

2. “Tarde em Itapoã” (“Afternoon on the Beach at Itapoã”) – Vinicius de Moraes and Toquinho. The first song the Little Poet Vinicius wrote with his new-found partner, Toquinho. Their voices are beautifully blended in this, their most whimsical combination. It’s a lovely tune, one that’s been covered by a variety of artists, including Brazilian singer Jane Duboc who partnered with baritone sax specialist Gerry Mulligan on their 1994 album Paraíso on Telarc.

3. “Mas que nada” (“Oh, That’s Nothing”) – Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. A bossa nova classic by any measure of the term, most people would be surprised to learn that bandleader Mendes (still going strong at 73) did not compose this rollicking number. That honor goes to Rio-born musician Jorge Duilio Lima Menezes, whose stage moniker is currently Jorge Ben Jor. The song was revived by Sergio in 2006 as a joint venture with the Black Eyed Peas for a commercial aired during the 2006 World Cup, leading to reconfirmation of its status as an international cross-cultural hit.

The flamboyant Ney Matogrosso
Ney Matogrosso

4. “Aquarela do Brasil” (“Brazil”) – Ney Matogrosso. Known as Brazil’s theme song, it was written by the prolific Ary Barroso, who lived for a time in Hollywood and was courted by none other than Walt Disney himself, although little to nothing came of the encounter. Barroso was even rumored to have had an affair with Carmen Miranda (discounted by author Ruy Castro in his biography of the famed Brazilian Bombshell). Ney Matogrosso’s priceless, flamboyant rendition of the tune is my preferred version, which finds him in singularly spectacular voice.

5. “Adeus, batucada” (“Bye-Bye, My Samba”) – Carmen Miranda. More than any other record, this melancholy samba fit Carmen’s profile as her country’s premier ambassador of Brazilian song. Its composer, a poor black youth named Synval Silva, also served as the entertainer’s chauffeur in Rio. He even wrote the refined lyrics, which reflect Carmen’s clear-eyed philosophy of life: “Vou-me embora chorando / com o meu coração sorrindo / E vou deixar todo mundo valorizando a batucada” – “With tears in my eyes / I’ll leave behind a glad heart / So that everyone I meet can enjoy the beat of samba.”

6. “Only a Dream in Rio” – James Taylor and Milton Nascimento. Written by the ethereal voiced Milton with his favorite lyricist, Fernando Brant, the English text was supplied by Mr. Taylor. Nasally twang aside, it’s one of arena favorite Sweet Baby James’ few forays in a foreign language. Despite the linguistic difficulties of Brazilian Portuguese, he manages to win listeners over by his complete sincerity in putting the song across. Milton joins him for one of the verses as well as the main chorus.

Milton Nascimento "Live"
Milton Nascimento “Live”

7. “Nos Bailes da Vida” (“In the Dances of Life”) – Milton Nascimento and Fernando Brant. Recorded live in November 1983 at the Teatro Municipal in São Paulo (my wife just happened to be present for the session), this extremely catchy tune is so infectious that Milton has the audience sing right along with him in one of those magical moments. His red-hot band mates include such stalwarts as keyboardist Wagner Tiso, guitarist Hélio Delmiro, and Robertinho Silva on drums and percussion. Hit it, Miltie!

8. “Meu nome é Gal” (“My Name is Gal”) – Gal Costa. Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos, known professionally as Gal Costa, has been at the forefront of not only the tropicalismo movement, but of Brazilian popular music in general. Born in Bahia, Gal Costa’s eponymously titled song was released in 1969, with words and music by Roberto and Erasmo Carlos, two artists whose work bears listening to. It’s another of those personal statements that Gal, a consummate singer of impeccable taste, has reshaped throughout the years to suit her various moods. The older she gets, the more fascinating (and jazzier) she becomes.

9. “Aquele abraço” (“That embrace”) – Gilberto Gil. Also written and recorded in 1969 was this musical salute to Rio de Janeiro from fellow Bahian and former minister of culture, Gilberto Gil. Filled with topical and cultural references from the era, among them the Flamengo Soccer Club and colorful TV personality Chacrinha, Gil penned this number shortly after his release from prison and just before his being exiled to Europe. Accompanying him was tropicalismo co-founder Caetano Veloso, who helped bring Brazil’s music and rhythms to Britain.

Caetano Veloso singing "Sampa"
Caetano Veloso singing “Sampa”

10. “Sampa” – Caetano Veloso. And finally, we have Mr. Veloso himself. Acknowledged at one time as Brazil’s answer to our own Bob Dylan, the intellectually stimulated Caetano passed through a phase where he and various other musical artists channeled concrete poetry and symbolism in their works. In this song, he pays homage to São Paulo, where upon his crossing of Ipiranga Street with São João Avenue, something always happens inside his heart. It’s both a critical commentary as well as a love letter to South America’s largest and most crowded urban center (and the city of my birth).

How’s that for a play list? I had to ask my wife Regina to dig into her memory banks for some help with the above compilation, but it was worth it. As a side bonus, I’d like to give an honorable mention to an old sixties Carnival standard, “Mascara Negra” (“Black Mask”), by that great sambista Zé Keti, sung by powerhouse chanteuse Dalva de Oliveira, one of dozens of female performers who made their mark during the glory days of Música Popular Brasileira.

Ken’s response to the list was definitive: “Not easy is it to narrow it down, is it? I love the broadness of your tastes, including Frank Sinatra and James Taylor. I agree that sometimes the best interpretations are done simply by the most musical folks irrespective of geography.” To which, he added: “I’d love to hear someone like Cameroonian bass player/vocalist Richard Bona do some of these great tracks.”

Wow! So would I. “You’re right about narrowing things down,” I replied. “It’s practically impossible. The list is notable for who was excluded (Chico Buarque, Maria Bethania, Zeca Pagodinho, Marisa Monte, etc.). Where’s [Senegalese singer-songwriter] Youssou N’Dour when you need him? Why, he’s singing ‘In Your Eyes’ with Peter Gabriel, that’s where!”

One gets used to doing these sorts of on-the-spot requests after a while. Last summer, I remember providing the English lyrics to the Andrew Sisters’ version of “I Want My Mamma” (“Mamãe eu quero”), for a one-man show that my friend Claudio Botelho was doing in Rio that week. Claudio sent me an MP3 clip of the song, which I must have listened to a gazillion times before I could get the gist of what that fabulously harmonious trio was singing.  It was well worth the effort, though — and I had a blast listening to it, too.

Ken shared my enthusiasm for this assignment: “I enjoyed listening to lots of musical options to get to the songs which gave me goose bumps. Of course, with these [types of] lists there are always the questions of ‘what… you didn’t include (fill in the blank)’ and ‘how could you have added that one.’ I reckon that’s largely why magazines and papers do lists.”

I reckon so, too, Ken, which is fine by me. The final group of ten, like any selection — and I include the selection of players for those national teams participating in this year’s World Cup — was based primarily on personal choice. It incorporated some of the above suggestions, in most cases executed by other artists, along with several items that, as a rule, were fairly representative of the country’s multiplicity of talents.

Still, it’s nice to be needed — and to use one’s head for reasons other than game-winning goals. Hmm, on second thought… uh, maybe not…

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Brazil 2014 World Cup Soccer Preview — Score One for the Other Side

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Remember: It’s Only a Game

Marcelo scores own goal against Brazil
Oops! Marcelo scores own goal against Brazil

Well, we’re off to the races! This has turned out to be a season of disappointments and unmet expectations. Last weekend, we witnessed the demise of a possible Triple Crown winner — the first since 1978 — as heavily favored California Chrome turned out to have lead weight in his hooves in a losing bid to capture the Belmont Stakes in New York.

And last Thursday, Brazil finally kicked off its month-long celebration of World Cup Soccer fever. Unfortunately, viewers overseas and at home were treated to an appallingly run-of-the-mill opening ceremony. Allegedly put together by Belgian artistic director Daphne Cornez, it boasted the participation of various samba contingents, with questionable contributions by non-Brazilians Jennifer Lopez (born in the Bronx of Puerto Rican ancestry) and Cuban-American rapper Pitbull, as well as pop singer Claudia Leitte, the only Brazilian within earshot.

It’s my understanding that the ceremony’s organizers wanted to attract an international crowd to the worldwide event, which is all well and good. Still, if Brazil wanted to show off its musical and artistic attributes, why not make use of local talent? Don’t tell me that the land of Carnival and Samba couldn’t get its act together in time for the show. They’ve had adequate time to prepare (it’s been seven years since Brazil was awarded the Cup — seven lean years, no less). To imagine otherwise strains credibility!

Controversy was indeed a critical part of the games. Since last year’s disastrous Confederations Cup clashes, protests have been the norm throughout the country — and for good reason. A disgruntled citizenry has demanded that attention be paid to their concerns for once: for more federal money, and state and local funding for schools; for more hospitals and medical facilities, and dependable infrastructure; for more affordable housing for those unfortunates left out on a limb by a seemingly indifferent Brazilian government.

World Cup protesters (www.forbes.com)
World Cup protesters (www.forbes.com)

I have no trouble with protests per se. In my view, it is a citizen’s right to petition their representatives for better services; to be heard and listened to; to be taken seriously, and treated with fairness and equanimity. When the politicians look on with deaf ears, it’s time to take to the streets. To do all these things while the world is watching and waiting can serve to draw attention to the people’s plight, which is normally a good thing. But there are times when too much of a good thing can lead to an undesired outcome.

Strikes are another means of getting the populace to focus on a common goal. The trouble with that is, once one sector gets their way — in the form of pay raises and increased benefits — another sector holds out its hand to ask for similar concessions. Meanwhile, essential services (e.g., subway, bus, banking, and consulates around the world) are interrupted and everyone suffers for the sake of the few; a few, that is, in relative terms.

I understand about adverse criticism, too. To have the press constantly pick at the World Cup organizers for their lack of preparation, to stress the cost overruns of over $11 billion spent to date, as mediocre soccer stadiums and other unfinished projects linger in shameful neglect and disrepair, can leave fellow Brazilians with a bitter taste in their mouths. People start to wonder whether the “professionals” employed are only just self-promoting amateurs in disguise, boasting of their so-called abilities, when in fact they lack the very thing required to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

What most folks are really hoping for is for the host country to show their mettle on the playing field. Now there’s a place where Brazilians can seek retribution for the blunders of their elected officials. That’s where Brazil’s best can make a difference and shine in the eyes of the soccer world.

So what were World Cup fans given in return for their loyalty? Why, only pedestrian (I’m being kind here) displays of paltry soccer skills by a lackluster squad of young wannabes who never were. Sure, there’s talent aplenty in Brazil’s lineup: Fred, Hulk, Julio Cesar, Oscar, and the stylish Neymar (with a halfway decent haircut for a change).

Their showboating coach Luis Felipe Scolari, or Felipão (Big Phil), is the foremost football blusterer in the business. While he shouts out commands and gesticulates wildly from the sidelines — more to distract the opposition than to relay coherent instructions to his team — the players go about their business in routine, time-is-on-our-side manner.

I’ve written about this attitude before, how it frustrates the hell out of followers and coveys to viewers the artificiality of the much-abused term “team work.” I won’t waste valuable space on this blog to go over every wrong turn or wasted opportunity. However, I will point out the obvious: it’s ironic that the first goal to be scored in this year’s tournament was an own goal by Brazilian defender Marcelo — the first own goal of its kind in Brazil’s long history of World Cup participation. Although Brazil won the opening game by a score of 3-1, it was not a good start, and a bad omen overall.

The other breaking news of the day was the catastrophic defeat on Friday by the Netherlands of defending World Cup champion Spain. Did I say defeat? Heck, the Spaniards were categorically and undeniably demolished in a 5-1 shellacking of Brobdingnagian proportions.

True, it was only the first encounter for either side, and there’s plenty of time for Spain to make up the deficit. But, oh how sweet it is that the Dutchmen sought, and achieved, redemption for their poor performance against the Spanish four years ago in South Africa. While we’re on the subject, Brazil and the other soccer greats, among them France, Argentina and Italy, all floundered in 2010 thanks to little to no offense to speak of, or barely adequate defense.

Robben & Van Persie: Dutch Masters Destroy Spain
Robben & Van Persie: Dutch Masters Destroy Spain

I see, too, that the officiating has shown no improvement from previous years. Questionable foul calls, non-existent infractions, and spurious penalty shots have begun to dominate the editorials and sports pages. It’s too soon to tell if this aspect of World Cup Soccer will have the undesired effect of unfairly favoring one side over another. The way I see it, the more that soccer becomes dependent on advanced technology, the more the necessity for instant replays becomes a major issue in resolving such intractable problems as those cited above.

All we need now is another “Hand of God” moment (I’m referring, of course, to Argentine player Diego Maradona’s phantom goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England) to lend illegitimacy to an already dubious reputation that the Federation Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, has no doubt fostered.

Yes, we’re off to the races! Anyone for a replay of the Triple Crown? I didn’t think so…

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova (Part One)

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An Introduction to My “Personal and Cultural History of Opera, Popular Music, Soccer, Musical Theater and the Cinema in the Land of Carnival and Samba”

Brazil's Fat Lady Sings! (clatl.com)
“Ho-yo-to-ho!” Brazil’s Fat Lady Sings (clatl.com)

A Preface to Life

Life is simply not worth living if one is insufficiently challenged or inspired by it. My stories were inspired by several themes in my life, the main one being the dramatic and forever fluctuating fortunes of Brazil’s operatic Fat Lady, a subject not so normally written about even in my former home country.

Innocently enough, this all came about not as a weighty historical tome, but as a series of challenges (to myself, mostly) in the form of freelance articles first published online at an unprepossessing Internet Website.

Why challenging? Because, as it quickly became apparent, a great deal of my time and effort would have to be spent on the tedious task of researching, studying, analyzing, and dissecting the subject beforehand. That’s fair enough. But while this is a regular, everyday part of most professional and amateur writing, it proved especially daunting where this topic was concerned, due in large part to its having been written almost exclusively in the United States and not in Brazil, as one might have expected.

Nevertheless, as these pieces began to expand and coalesce into a more or less sequential retelling of the history of opera in Brazil, I decided at that point to push the rough outline along by adding a few tidbits and side-trips to the other under-explored regions of Brazilian culture, namely those of popular music and the worlds of professional soccer, musical theater, and the once derided Brazilian cinema.

But how, one might ask, could these diverse areas possibly have anything to do with the tantalizingly horned grande dame of the operatic stage? After all, in America (at any rate) movies are movies, sporting events are sporting events, and popular- and classical-music programs are, well, popular- and classical-music programs — and never the in-betweens shall meet. This has been the time-tested pattern for any number of years now.

Yet, as a native-born Brazilian with a mere smidgeon of curiosity about his origin and roots, and an in-bred concern about these self-same subjects — tossed in, like so much salad, with recollections of how Carnival, pop music, soccer, and the stage and screen all seemed to blend together into one big kettle of black bean stew — in the back of my mind never did I feel that these interdependent activities should be completely divorced from one another, not by any means. Which all leads directly into the other all-embracing theme of my work: the interconnection and identification of individuals with country and subject matter.

Perhaps the early influence of my father Annibal, who had an enormous and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of all these vast topics, was of primary importance to me in my quest for some illumination through the sometimes-murky cultural waters that Brazil appeared to bask in. Perhaps, too, my own personal life experiences would lead me to the fundamental conclusion that, in essence, we are all dealing with the same, basic ingredient: and that is, popular entertainment.

This is not to say that “popular” is to be equated with “mass” entertainment, although, in theory, there are many overlapping elements common to both terms. In this instance, popular entertainment can come to denote multiple or myriad diversions that are, by their very nature, both pleasant and appealing to most sensible human beings, irrespective of their class, color or economic station in life.

Staying with this theme, I can remember a time in Brazil’s not-too-distant past when highbrow entertainment would freely associate with its lower-browed brethren, and at any number of public gathering places. Older readers in the U.S. may recall, too, that classical music was, at one point in its history, often referred to as “that longhair stuff,” and by no less an accepted authority than America’s own favorite cartoon character, Bugs Bunny — accepted, that is, until the advent of the swinging sixties and early seventies, when the hippie lifestyle and counterculture movements all but wiped those precious perceptions off the map of our subconscious.

Remember the Titans

On another, more personal level, nothing could ever wipe from my subconscious the memory of such life-altering events as:

– listening to an EP, or “extended play,” of the ever-smiling, always joyful São Paulo-born pop stylist Jair Rodrigues, performing his biggest hit, “Deixe isso pra lá” (“Leave that over there”), from 1965, with its rhythmic, over-and-under hand movements — a possible prototype for today’s ubiquitous hip-hop and rap music, no less;

– remembering the time my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lawrence Bresner, quite innocently asked one of his students (i.e., me) how to pronounce the exotic-sounding name of Astrud Gilberto (“Why, Astrud Gilberto,” I responded); he then went on to mention a top-ten tune of the period, “The Girl from Ipanema,” written by a young musician called Jobim (“Joe Beem?”), while, in the same breath, extol the virtues of the Academy Award-winning film Black Orpheus; at the time, I had no idea who these two individuals were, or even where — or what — Ipanema or Black Orpheus could be;

– seeing the fabulous soccer star Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or, as he was more commonly known in the sports world, O Rei Pelé, the “King” of the soccer field — live and in person — appearing with his home team, Santos, at the nearly dilapidated Downing Stadium on New York’s Randall’s Island, back in the mid-1960s;

– getting drenched to the bone, along with my father, brother, uncles, and cousins (and everyone else who was there, for that matter), at my very first Corinthians soccer match in July 1971; the team, an old family favorite, won the game by some ridiculous, lopsided score not even the record books could keep track of;

– hearing future Bahian singing star Simone (née Simone Bittencourt de Oliveira) become an overnight sensation — and before our very eyes — at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in the summer of 1974, years before her recording of Chico Buarque’s song, “O que será,” from the film Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, reached the top of the worldwide charts; along with my initial exposure to the martial art/dance form known as capoeira;

– experiencing my very first — and quite possibly last — Carnival dance party inside the huge Corinthians sports complex, in February 1979, situated in the upscale neighborhood of Tatuapé in São Paulo; and, as a result, becoming the unlucky recipient of the worst damned headache I’ve ever had the misfortune to receive after four (or was it five?) non-stop hours of constant drum-pounding and samba-line strutting;

– finding a complete recording of Carlos Gomes’ most famous opera, Il Guarany, at some out-of-the-way spot in the old downtown district of the city back in 1985; a monophonic long-play in near-sterling condition, it featured a cast of Brazilian no-name singers, warbling away in what I thought was fairly decent Italian; the most striking thing about the album was its total lack of a libretto or program notes, which my father never stopped pestering me about; 

– catching the amazingly talented pequeno gigante (“little giant”), the actor, singer, comedian, and popular entertainer Grande Otelo (born Sebastião Bernardes de Sousa Prata in the state of Minas Gerais) — so often described as a dynamic, pint-sized version of Sammy Davis Jr. (as if such a thing were possible) — at the Scala Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, during my July 1987 honeymoon trip; the same Grande Otelo who once caught the discerning eye of maverick filmmaker Orson Welles in his unfinished epic, It’s All True;

– having lived, from 1996 to 2001, in the “concrete jungle” of São Paulo, population 15 million (and climbing), during the latter half of the Clinton presidency, and getting to know a longtime friend of my wife’s family, Oswaldo Lucchesi; an ex-employee of Banco do Brasil, the late Mr. Lucchesi spent the initial part of his banking career in the wilds of Manaus, near the mouth of the Amazon River, where he witnessed the filming of the jungle adventure Fitzcarraldo, which featured Grande Otelo in a supporting role;

– making the acquaintance of my next-door neighbor: former Broadway dancer, painter, sculptor, and art instructor Jon Kovach, who upon hearing that my wife and I were Brazilian-born proudly related the jaw-dropping anecdote of how he once danced the night away with the incomparable Carmen Miranda and her sister, Aurora, at the Roxy Club in Manhattan during the late 1940s; and

– placing a late afternoon telephone call, in September 2010, to Susana Moraes, the eldest daughter of legendary poet, playwright, songwriter, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, and speaking with her about her father’s play Orfeu da Conceição, the film Black Orpheus, his partnership with Tom Jobim, our respective parents, and the marvelous times in which they lived.

I lost count of the number of individuals I’ve come in close contact with throughout the years as a result of my pieces. But these and other noteworthy ventures aside, I sincerely feel that this literary effort of mine has, to no small extent, brought these seemingly disparate elements together into one engaging and, it is my wish, perfectly lucid anthology for laypeople interested in or curious about Brazilian classical and popular culture.

Antonio Carlos Gomes (www.classicalm.com)
Composer Carlos Gomes (www.classicalm.com)

Bound for Glory

 Examples of artistic eclecticism abound throughout: from native-born artists studying opera abroad (Carlos Gomes), to classically-trained conductors writing their own film scores (John Neschling); from avant-garde directors experimenting with cutting-edge theater pieces (Gerald Thomas), to American jazz-pop vocalists composing songs dedicated to Brazilian masters (Michael Franks); from soccer players and pop stars moonlighting as movie actors (Breno Mello, Toni Garrido), to opera singers dressing up as their favorite Carnival participants (Bidu Sayão); and many, many more.

This is what the vibrant and colorful body of individuals that make up the multifaceted and multiracial society of Brazil can do to those who dearly love its culture so. And, indeed, diversity is what the country and the Brazilian people are ultimately all about and what I aspired to recreate with my writing.

As a consequence of these facts, I have scrupulously tried to recapture the flavor of these various events. As any author can tell you, reinvigorating the past in print, especially if one was not there to experience it, is a supreme challenge to one’s abilities. One must rely almost entirely on the accounts of others, or, at best, on those whose research has succeeded in bringing these past occurrences to vivid life.

That being said, I have attempted to personalize my stories whenever and wherever possible, in the expectation that by doing so one can extract a good deal of useful information from them, which will allow the reader to identify more closely with the situations described therein, as they surely have for me. To be precise, establishing and maintaining a Brazilian identity in the face of rampant globalization and growing multiculturalism is at the heart of everything I write.

What qualifies me for such a momentous assignment? Besides a lifetime of living and working in the United States and Brazil as a Brazilian-born American married to a native paulistana (a resident of São Paulo) — which has been of tremendous import to me in augmenting my own, sometimes myopic view of things — I basically grew up with these topics. In addition to having taken part in, appreciated, and studied all these various aspects in depth, I have paid particular attention to those that have piqued my interest the most.

As examples, I cite my participation in Fordham University’s Film Club presentations, as well as having been enrolled at that school’s Rose Hill Campus as a student of art history, theology, philosophy, modern and medieval history; my work as a consultant and transcriber of movies, films, television programs, and miniseries for the Home Box Office (HBO) Network of Brazil; my 40+ years as an active eyewitness to a fabulous assortment of classical, operatic, athletic, and/or cinematic endeavors at the Metropolitan Opera House, the New York City Opera, Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Town Hall, the City Center, Loew’s Astor Plaza, Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden and the Felt Forum, the Village Vanguard, the Ziegfeld Theatre, Giants Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, et al. As such, I find myself uniquely blessed in attesting to the views and opinions put forth in these texts.

What might also have spurred me on to complete this worthwhile writing project was the anticipation of Brazil’s hosting the 2014 World Cup Soccer tournament,* along with the Summer Olympic Games in 2016, the first time any South American country has been accorded that prestigious honor. A look into this wide swath of Brazilian culture, I thought, would go a long way toward providing some needed background for people whose first exposure to the country these events would undoubtedly be.

Finally, the Fat Lady’s story could never have been told, let alone finished, printed, and published in any form whatsoever, without one indispensable ingredient: passion. I once told an artist friend of mine, when asked, “What is it that’s missing from my work?” Without pause I answered: “Passion.” If an artist’s work lacks passion, then it is worthless, empty, like blank spaces on a slate. Without passion for what one does, there can be no “life” as we know it.

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

*The last time the World Cup took place there, at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro back in 1950, the Brazilian national team suffered a humiliating 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in the final matchup.