Soccer

Julio Mazzei, the Cosmos and the Untold Story of the Man Behind the Glasses (Part Three): Life after Soccer

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Professor Julio Mazzei (Photo: Getty Images)

Dénouement: Decline and Fall

With Pelé’s departure on October 1, 1977, the North American Soccer League (NASL) and Warner Communications were able to negotiate a contract with ABC television to broadcast regular network showings of league games, with a concentration on the Cosmos. Hand in hand with this arrangement, there were the requisite tailgate parties, barbecue outings, photo opportunities, the works. Giants Stadium was filled to capacity for nearly every game, a favorable omen.

But there were rules to be obeyed, and tried-and-true formulas to respect. One of them was self-evident: you can’t have one great team scoring all the goals, with every other team in the league a bunch of nobodies. Without reliable opposition you lose your competitive edge, that ability to test yourself, to prove yourself worthy against a determined foe. In this, the Cosmos suffered a fate worse than sudden death.

In 1978, the NASL expanded to twenty-four teams. Conversely, while the Cosmos themselves were getting better at their own game, the quality of play went down everywhere else. There were teams formed in Texas and Hawaii, even in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, places the NASL had no business being in. As for the Cosmos, they were constantly on the road, with translators, stretch limos, hotel bookings, etc., all on the company dole. In fact, there was an over-abundance of hoopla; numerous league records were also being set for goals, wins, and attendance, but to what end? To victory in 1978, that’s what! And ABC Sports and their award-winning announcer Jim McKay covered it.

By 1979, Chinaglia was supposed to be calling the shots. He put together the team, the so-called “shadow government” (or the man behind the curtain, in David Hirshey’s words), with Coach Firmani and a fellow named Peppe Pinton coming along for the ride. A photograph is fleetingly flashed on the screen showing a beaming Steve Ross, with Chinaglia in half-shadow in the center (his face turned partially to the side), Professor at far right in wide-framed glasses, and João Havelange, President of FIFA from 1974 to 1998 (1:19:45 to 1:19:46) in suit and tie. Ah, to have been a fly on that wall!

True, the Cosmos were ratcheting up the victories, and Giorgio was busy scoring goals — a win-win situation for all, one would assume. That is, until the team ran into the Vancouver White Caps and the infamous shootout phase. Five seconds left, Nelsi Morais beat the goalie to the punch. Nelsi scores! But time had run out for the Cosmos, and for the league. Poor scheduling (a matchup at high noon on a hot and humid Saturday in July) led to even poorer TV ratings. After one year ABC canceled their contract. That spelled doom not only for the team but for the entire league. Back-biting, finger-pointing, and infighting resulted. Everybody blamed the man in charge, Chinaglia, for the debacle. A convenient enough scapegoat, according to his detractors, but the truth was far more complicated.

In 1982, the Cosmos won their fifth title, then under Mazzei’s stewardship. The team photo (at 1:24:10 to 1:24:17) shows the natty Professor, smiling amid the turbulence as was his nature, seated strategically between Chinaglia and Beckenbauer (keeping the “giants” at bay, so to speak), just as the NASL was collapsing around them, the result of a bloated budget and the lack of a profitable television deal.

The 1983 Cosmos team photo. Bottom row: Chinaglia, Mazzei, Beckenbauer

To add to their misfortunes, Atari, Warner Communication’s prize video-game baby, had crashed and burned, a one-day, billion-dollar loss, leaving in its wake a “tsunami of red ink” that Ross could not ignore. One of the last full team shots in the documentary (panning from left to right at 1:25:01 to 1:25:06) features everyone from Jay Emmett, Steve Ross, and the Cosmos players to the animated Ertegun brothers. But where was the Professor? After so many images of the bespectacled trainer, mentor, and coach, Mazzei had become even more pronounced by his absence. With that, Warner started to trim the fat.

Also in 1982, Colombia had withdrawn as the host nation for the 1986 World Cup competition. Perhaps this would be the shot in the arm that soccer needed to ensure its continued existence. An enthusiastic Ross campaigned hard to get the tournament staged for the first time ever in North America, a sign of soccer’s growing importance in our hemisphere. It was here that Professor Mazzei was called back into action. We see another photo of Steve Ross, similar to the one above of Ross, Chinaglia, and Havelange, this time with an ever-so-slight portion of Professor’s face (at 1:26:08 to 1:26:11), from his left eye up to his head, being exposed — emblematic, one would think, of his diminished position behind the scenes. Despite the politicking and glad-handing invested in the effort, the bid went to Mexico (they had previously hosted the contest in 1970). No explanation was given for the turndown.

In 1984, the Cosmos was dissolved.

A group shot (from 1:28:16 to 1:28:20) includes, from left to right, Clive Toye, Jay Emmett, Steve Ross, and Gordon Bradley, surrounding the constantly smiling Pelé, who occupies the central position. He is holding the NASL soccer ball in the palm of his hand — the “King” displaying his scepter, the world in his arms. Just below the ball, squatting in front and cut off from below eye level, is the distinctive visage of Professor Julio Mazzei.

Clive Toye, Jay Emmett, Pele, Steve Ross & Gordon Bradley (with Mazzei’s forehead at bottom)

Only his upper forehead remains visible — photographically speaking (and as far as the Cosmos were concerned), only half as significant a contributor to the organization as he used to be. But all that work wasn’t for naught.

“The legacy of the Cosmos would be that they lay the seeds for every player that plays in this country today.” Thus spoke former Cosmos goalie Shep Messing. “Can you imagine a team like the Cosmos today?” quizzed Chinaglia appreciatively. “With the talent they had on the field? It would be worth a billion dollars!”

Indeed they would.

Steven Jay Ross passed away in 1992. He would never witness the arrival of the World Cup to the United States, which came in the summer of 1994. The film’s hopeful sign off, however, affirmed that “After the success of the 1994 World Cup, a new league, the Major League Soccer (MLS) was formed in 1996.” As an added bonus, it flashed this tidbit of information:

“The US National Team has qualified for every World Cup since 1990.”

Pelé, the lone superstar at the start, and the world’s greatest soccer player before and after his time with the team, declined to be interviewed for the documentary (his salary demands alone would have exceeded the film’s budget). His testimony wasn’t required, for without a doubt his one shot at popularizing the sport in the U.S. can be deemed a qualified success.

Pele (left) with Cosmos goalie Shep Messing

It was indeed a “once in a lifetime” achievement, an extraordinary story of a team and a league that rose from the ashes of its own destruction to become a major force in American sports. That achievement involved a number of individuals, among them the ever-present Professor Julio Mazzei.

Despite his reduced capacity, Mazzei’s influence continued to be felt as the team’s trainer and board member, as well as a spokesperson not just for the Cosmos but for the sport itself. He and Pelé would circumnavigate the globe by putting on countless soccer clinics and training workshops in over 70 countries. Mazzei even participated in a film, Pelé: The Master and His Method, specifically geared to young people with an interest in the skills and techniques required of the game.

I learned later from Professor’s daughter, Marjorie Mazzei Raggo, the reason for her father’s absence as an interview subject: by the time the documentary was being shot and edited, her father had come down with Alzheimer’s disease. “He no longer recognizes me or even speaks, much less talks about futebol. Can you believe it?” Unfortunately, we can. Unable to speak for himself. Professor is there in spirit.

After a lifetime spent in pursuit of soccer excellence, Julio Mazzei passed away on May 10, 2009, in the seaside resort city of Santos where he and Pelé first crossed paths.

One of the last scenes in the documentary (at 1:31:23 to 1:31:31) brings back one of the earliest: that of Pelé being hugged by his Cosmos teammates, Steve Hunt and Nelsi Morais, with an exuberant Professor Mazzei alongside as chief celebrant and supporter — the very symbol of joy and passion for the game, of an enthusiasm borne of sheer love for the sport; a childlike purity and naiveté that can only be captured by film and by those who knew him personally.

Although his name is nowhere to be found in the opening or closing credits, Mazzei’s handiwork is evident from start to finish. If his and Pele’s stories, as well as those of soccer itself, are the proverbial immigrant stories of crushing defeat turned into lasting victory; of fame and fortune and having “made it” in America (in Portuguese, de fazer America), then their time here was well spent.

With arms raised in triumph, all hats are off to the man behind the glasses. Not only was he friends with the great Pelé, he was everyone’s friend in soccer. ☼

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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Julio Mazzei, the Cosmos and the Untold Story of the Man Behind the Glasses (Part Two): Top of the Sports World

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Cosmos soccer star Pele at the Meadowlands in New Jersey (Photo: Alamy Stock Footage)

The Search for Order in the Soccer Universe

According to Clive Toye (in the 2006 documentary Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos), only one man could break through the antipathy toward the game of soccer in the U.S. And that man was Pelé, the hero of Brazil’s third World Cup victory. But how could they entice him?

Toye and Phil Woosnam, the North American Soccer League’s commissioner and investor in the team, claimed to have approached Pelé as far back as 1970 with an informal proposal to play in America. Their boss, Steve Ross, eventually saw the soccer icon as a marketing brand, a natural fit for their expanding organization; that television would be a huge moneymaker for the star and for the parent company, Warner Communications. We cut to a shot of Pelé in sunglasses, seated at a bench, with Professor Mazzei alongside wearing a white cap, a brown jacket, matching brown slacks, and aviator shades (26:47 to 26:53).

Jay Emmett, another investor in the franchise and later a Warner Communications executive, dispatched Cosmos lawyer Norman Samnick to São Paulo, Brazil, to see if he could sign the superstar to a contract. The problem with that move was that Pelé had been designated a national treasure by the Brazilian government, who refused to let him leave the country for any foreign offers. This was circumvented, somewhat, when Pelé decided to retire from the game by calling it a career in his home country.

Sensing a possible opening in their favor, the men proposed a US$2 million deal, but Pelé wanted more; to be exact, US$5 million for two years of play. Curiously, the reasons for his asking over and above the initial offering price are never explored. But there was a very good motive for his holding out for a higher amount: contrary to his prowess on the playing field, Pelé was not the most astute individual when it came to business acumen or money matters.

In Brazil, he had cosigned for a loan that had gone sour. The bank that was owed the money pressed him for payment, which numbered in the millions of dollars. Desperate to get out of the mess he had found himself in, Pelé turned to his closest advisers (thirty-two in number, according to a wisecracking Jay Emmett), one of whom was Professor Mazzei. The Professor, along with Pelé’s wife Rosemeire, his brother Zoca, and a financier named Xisto, met over the course of several months to discuss the alternatives. After much needling and cajoling, and through their joint efforts, they convinced Pelé that his best (and only) option would be to work out a mutually advantageous pact with the “gringos” in return for a three-year commitment to the team and a longer one to the Warner Communications group.

In a black-and-white photograph from the period, Professor Mazzei can be spotted, wearing a checkered jacket and looking over the contracts with former Cosmos executive Rafael de la Sierra (28:55 to 28:57). The shot shows de la Sierra in the middle right, with Mazzei, his right hand raised in a pontiff-like blessing over the documents, at center left, and Toye seated at far left; a table cluttered with paper, accompanied by ashtrays filled to overflowing, can also be observed. (The prevailing mood was one of having pulled an excess of all-nighters!)

From the looks and stances of the various participants, it was obvious that money had been the main stumbling block. As far as high-flying salaries went, baseball’s home-run king, Hank Aaron, had made US$200,000 that year — and he was the highest paid player in sports. Many years have passed since these events took place, yet there are still differences of opinion about how much Pelé was paid for his services: a five-part contract, at one million per year; a ten-year public relations contract; a million-dollar record deal; and one million for three years of actual play. In the final analysis, the figure was somewhere between $2.7 and $7 million, at 1974 rates — any way you slice it, this was an unimaginable sum at the time that, unfortunately, went mostly toward paying back the loan Pelé had unwittingly cosigned for.

The 1975 New York Cosmos, with Professor Mazzei (far left) and Pele (top row, fourth from the right)

Once again, we are shown a photo of a dazed Professor Mazzei (at 29:28 and 29:30) with a mass of cigarette butts on the table; and faded footage of Mazzei (at 30:31 to 30:33) looking over and/or behind Pelé’s shoulder, with Jay Emmett directly behind him. Pelé embraces his new boss, Steve Ross, and then pats Emmett on the back to officially “seal the deal.” Significantly, Pink Floyd’s song “Money” plays on the soundtrack, which sets the proper tone.

We learn, too, that Henry Kissinger was also involved in bringing Pelé to the U.S. (Brazil did not want to let him go, so they continued to play hard to get). Through some behind-the-scenes politicking and arm-twisting, Kissinger, who was still highly influential as U.S. Secretary of State, along with others in the Brazilian government, were able to make the miracle happen “for the good of the relationship of Brazil and the United States.”

The contract was officially announced at the 21 Club in Manhattan, in what Daily News columnist David Hirshey claimed was held “in a room aptly named the Hunt Room, as if Pelé [were] the prize catch.” Pelé was two hours late (the quip was that he was on “Pelé time,” not New York time). When he finally did arrive, guess who was standing behind him? Professor Mazzei, his trainer and mentor at Santos Soccer Club, dressed in a blue business suit, white shirt, and natty striped tie (33:39 to 33:42). He is seen directing traffic at or near the podium, as Pelé waves to the press corps and shakes hands all around. Veteran sportswriter and severe soccer critic Dick Young can be heard heckling the participants from the back of the room. Nevertheless, Pelé’s charm and charisma energized those present, especially the reporters who likewise became instant fans. This positive show of support resulted in record attendance at the Cosmos games, though Young remained a powerful skeptic.

After the contract was signed (and with Pelé’s wife by his side), Mazzei turned to the expectant crowd. Translating for the “King” while inadvertently echoing Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York,” the Professor issued the following proclamation to a warm round of applause: “You can spread out the news to all the world that the soccer arrived finally in USA” (34:50 to 34:58).

Intermission: Rise & Shine

Meanwhile, at Randall’s Island, Pelé is seen patting two small boys on the head, while the ever-watchful, ever-present Professor Mazzei, in jacket and tie (36:30 to 36:34), looks on in the near distance. A bit earlier, Mazzei, dressed in an orange-colored, long-sleeved jersey (35:29 to 35:35), is caught observing the superstar going through his training routine. Next, Pelé enters the stadium for his first match as a Cosmos player. And who do we see trailing behind him, in dark glasses, wide-open collar, and plaid jacket? You guessed it: good ole Professor Mazzei (36:39 to 36:40). Thus began the North American leg of Pelé’s career at the age of thirty-four.

The first game took place at Downing Stadium, on June 15, 1975, against the Dallas Tornado. The score was tied at 2-2. Pelé had done well for himself, with an assist and a header in the process. When it was over, Pelé went down to the showers. The locker room was packed to the rafters with wall-to-wall reporters. Out of the blue, he called Rafael de la Sierra to come over and shouted, over the din of competing voices, that this would be the first and last game he would play for the team. “Look at my feet,” he cried. “I have a fungus that I contracted here!”

De la Sierra was stunned by the accusation, but it turned out the alleged “fungus” was nothing more than green spray-paint used to brighten up and prettify the substandard field. Crouching down at Pelé’s hallowed feet, which were covered in filthy, mud-drenched socks, was the unmistakable form of Professor Mazzei (38:51 to 38:55), in the same green baseball cap and Cosmos sweatpants he sported at the beginning of the documentary. When Pelé realized the ridiculousness of his claim, he broke out into an amused grin. We can  sense a collective sigh of relief.

“I come to play in America,” Pelé later announced before the camera, “because I believe in soccer in America. Kids here love the sport, the American people’s sport naturally. I come to play here because I know, in a few years we’ll have a good team in America.”

How right he was — and how prophetic as well. His presence continued to shatter attendance records, the voiceover makes known, although that first season ended with the Cosmos missing the playoffs. Soon after, Pelé was invited to the White House, where he put on a brief demonstration for then-President Gerald Ford, with Professor Mazzei (42:38 to 42:49) interpreting as the need arose.

Pele (center right) shows President Gerald Ford (center left) how to head the ball. Professor Mazzei (extreme left, in dark glasses) and Clive Toye look on

Things got better as the Cosmos moved to Yankee Stadium. As a matter of fact, many people have taken credit for bringing Pelé to the U.S. and to the Cosmos. However, it remains a mystery that the one man who became his most trusted companion — his trainer, his mentor, and his English language translator as well as his frequent travel partner — goes unmentioned.

From then on, things picked up for professional soccer in America. At Franz Beckenbauer’s signing, there was the ubiquitous Professor Mazzei, standing at extreme left and flanking Ahmet Ertegun, Werner Roth (captain of the Cosmos), Pelé, Mr. Ross, the Kaiser, and Chinaglia. But Pelé, it can be stated, was without a doubt the player who started the literal ball rolling, the one who could lay claim to the mantle of having given soccer the propriety it lacked in North America. As a result, the likes of Gordon Banks, Rodney Marsh, Geoff Hurst, and George Best were all attracted to the States.

Steve Ross wanted a winner above all else. This is why he recruited the Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, who is variously described as a “backstabbing individual,” a person “who scored a lot of goals,” but who was generally disliked; “a very disagreeable fellow at times,” but one who “was extremely passionate about soccer” (according to Ross’ son, Mark). He was also the “man to put the ball in the back of the net,” exactly what Ross required. And maybe what the Cosmos needed at that point. Ego and temperament were what drove Chinaglia to become the league’s highest scorer; whereas aptitude and ability made Pelé the leader in assists.

Despite Chinaglia’s reputation as a playboy, he and Ross got along well together, former Cosmos goalie Shep Messing insisted. “Giorgio had won a soft side in the heart of Steve Ross.” Obviously, this led to friction between the two prima donnas of the team, Pelé and Chinaglia. Not that Pelé was the “diva” type, the kind to throw temper tantrums at the drop of a hat; it was that Giorgio craved being the rock star, the idol of millions — he certainly had the dark, smarmy looks and the requisite brooding mien. He also needed the adulation (both the boos and the cheers), the attention, and the hangers-on. This was not the case with Pelé, who had enough self-possession and assurance not to require those things. He had been in the spotlight for half his life, ever since his 1958 World Cup debut in Sweden, ergo he was used to being at the center of the soccer world.

They clashed in the locker room, where emotions ran high, exploding in a torrent of recriminations and four-letter words. Egos inevitably took over, especially Chinaglia’s. David Hirshey, sports columnist and author who wrote a biography of Pelé, talked about the women, “a blonde on each arm,” as he recalled the soccer star having at one point. In that, Pelé and Giorgio saw eye-to-eye.

This helped to explain how the Cosmos lost the 1976 Championship to their rivals, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, by a score of 3-1. Wine, women, and song were to blame — in this instance, two bottles of Chivas Regal, according to Tampa Bay’s star player, Rodney Marsh. The boss, Mr. Ross, was not at all pleased. To escape the inevitable fallout, the Cosmos were sent on a tour of Europe, where they became literal “goodwill ambassadors,” in the words of Rafael de la Sierra.

Rodney Marsh, often hailed as “the white Pelé,” then relates the story of how he corrected a reporter who had interviewed him by insisting that Pelé [was] the black Rodney Marsh. “This did not go over well,” he confessed. With that, there is a shot of the team leaving their plane as it lands in London. Professor Mazzei is there, looking dapper in a gray-blue sports shirt and trademark dark glasses (53:16 to 53:18).

In the decade between the 1960s and the mid-70s, soccer in America had been transformed into its own type of sport, tailored specifically to U.S. audiences: that meant halftime shows, tailgate parties, leggy cheerleaders, a colorful mascot, and the piece de résistance — no tied games.

“You needed a winner,” Rodney Marsh would say. So teams would go first into a mini-game, then O.T., and finally the dreaded penalty shootout — only, this wasn’t the standard shootout it would become today; it was a one-on-one rush at the goalie! Some of the players despised the idea, while others loved it; either way, it brought additional excitement to the game. The players stood thirty-five yards from the goal mouth, and were given only five seconds to get off a shot before time would be called. The crowds ate it up.

Take the Credit, but Spread the Blame

New York Cosmos Cheerleaders (Photo: Alamy Stock Footage)

The Cosmos had been playing at Yankee Stadium until the final year, 1977, when they moved across the river to the newly built Meadowlands in New Jersey. They even added the Cosmos Cheerleaders (one of whom, a young woman named Marjorie, was Professor Mazzei’s daughter!). Also, a guy in a Bugs Bunny outfit, on loan from Jungle Habitat in New Jersey, would become their unofficial mascot in the stands and on the field. They were Americanizing the sport, at the same time that Steve Ross was continuing his efforts toward “internationalizing” the team (a contradiction in terms).

“It was like Noah’s Ark,” described Rose Ganguzza, Pelé’s manager from 1975-77. That year, there were fourteen new players from seven countries, among which was the twice-named European Player of the Year, the “Kaiser” Franz Beckenbauer. As mentioned earlier, at the signing, to the far left of the Ertegun brothers, Pelé, Ross, Beckenbauer, and Chinaglia, was Professor Mazzei, standing ramrod straight with his hands at his side and glancing down at his cuticles (57:18 to 57:20).

Chinaglia went berserk at the news of the signing, openly questioning why they, the Cosmos, needed another star player when they already had him! One reason was that the Cosmos were losing more games than winning them; another was that they were only drawing twenty or so thousand fans to their home games, in a stadium with a capacity for three times that much. So they were losing money with every game. And, as we learned, Ross did not like to lose anything — especially money.

In response to the crisis, Ross brought the heavy artillery out to the stadium, i.e., all the singers and actors under contract to Warner Communications. They were enlisted for their drawing power: Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Muhammad Ali, Quincy Jones, Henry Kissinger — you name ‘em, they had ‘em. Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Steven Spielberg, the list was endless. In Clive Toye’s words, “The bloody locker room was littered with people. It was becoming a joke.” Once, Mick Jagger was mistaken by Gordon Bradley for a drug addict, he looked so abysmally bad. Mick and Kissinger visited regularly, as did many other celebrities, which took attention away from the game and those playing it.

Henry Kissinger & Pele embrace in the Cosmos locker room. Jay Emmett is behind them, with Ahmet Ertegun slightly to the left of Kissinger

After a while, Toye resigned his post and Bradley was summarily fired. It seemed that Bradley had wanted to bounce Chinaglia from the team, but upon Bradley’s firing, Giorgio recommended that Eddie Firmani be hired to take his place. Firmani had led Tampa Bay to victory in 1976. Toye insisted that Giorgio “had a malign influence over Ross,” and therefore over the Cosmos. Giorgio was the “suck-up”: whenever he’d score a goal, he would run up to the boss’ box and wave and gesticulate in Steve’s direction, paying homage to the kingmaker, as it were. This was a smart move on Giorgio’s part since he too had been dropped by Coach Bradley. He needed to get back into Ross’ good graces, and this was one sure way to do it. In the end, the striker would win out over his adversaries.

Even with Chinaglia’s goal-scoring facility, the team lost five of their subsequent matches. So the search was on for new blood: Carlos Alberto, the captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team, was brought in from São Paulo. Carlos Alberto revealed that the day he arrived in New York, July 13, 1977, was the day of the big blackout. Crime, looting, arson, robberies … The Son of Sam serial killer was still on the loose, and the impending bankruptcy of New York City was in the air, along with gun shots, fire alarms, police sirens, and billows of black smoke— the place was in turmoil. I lived through those rough times, with the blackout doing the most damage to the city’s reputation. These were exceedingly difficult days to overcome. Having a winning, championship team to rally behind helped to pull the city from the brink.

Meanwhile, the Cosmos players were living it up at Studio 54 (equivalent to Nero fiddling while Rome burned), with stretch limos escorting them to and fro after each game, and to a huge section reserved for the team.  The rock-star milieu had finally come to U.S. soccer in that they held a party there every Monday night.

There is a snapshot of Pelé at a table, with his then-wife Rosemeire to his left; to Pelé’s right is Nelsi Morais, one of the first Brazilians to be signed by the Cosmos, and his wife; to Rosemeire’s left is the ubiquitous Professor Mazzei, and at the extreme right side is Mazzei’s wife, Maria Helena (1:04:32 to 1:04:35). They are raising their glasses in a toast to fun and frolic — the Brazilian contingency at play.

Nelsi Morais, Pele, Rosemeire & Professor Mazzei at Studio 54 in 1977

On August 14, 1977, a sold out audience of 77,691 screaming fans at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands saw the Cosmos seize the playoff bench from the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The team went on to win the 1977 Soccer Bowl against Portland, thanks to a squeaked-through goal by Steve Hunt and a tremendous header by Chinaglia. And they did it for Pelé; they wanted him to end his career on top as a winner. Act II came to a climax. It was the arc of triumph, the pinnacle of field performance for the New York Cosmos.

It would all come crashing down in the years to come.

(End of Part Two – To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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