Professor Julio Mazzei
Julio Mazzei, the Cosmos and the Untold Story of the Man Behind the Glasses (Part Three): Life after Soccer
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 are rules to be obeyed, and tried-and-true formulas to respect. One of them is self-evident: you can’t have one great team scoring all the goals, with every other team in the league a bunch of losers and 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 a fair amount 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 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.
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 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 prominent 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.
Unable to speak for himself, Professor is there in spirit. Despite his reduced capacity, Mazzei’s presence 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 put on an incredible number of 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. Only his upper forehead remains visible — photographically speaking (and as far as the Cosmos were concerned), only half as significant a contributor as he used to be. But all that work wasn’t in vain.
“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 U.S., which came in the summer of 1994. The film’s hopeful signoff, 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.
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.
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.
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
Who’s That Guy?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Modern technology has been a fabulous boon to our get-it-now society. Just think of all the electronic wonders available to us, and within our easy reach: laptops, routers, Webcams, BlackBerrys, iPods, iPhones, iPads, i-This, i-That, iYi-yi… Why, the list is endless and protracted.
Apparently, there’s nothing better than state-of-the-art, cutting-edge devices to bring people from diverse backgrounds together. It’s almost like taking an electronic trip to a foreign land, but without the discomfort and delay associated with our present-day air travel (ugh).
From a communications standpoint, though, one of the more practical innovations, and a blessing in disguise (to this writer, at least), is e-mail. It can also be a wolf in sheep’s clothing to anyone who’s ever opened an innocuous looking attachment by mistake, only to discover that the health of one’s terribly expensive hard drive has been irreversibly compromised by some hidden virus or other — the high-tech equivalent of a mail bomb.
On the other hand, heretofore-unknown senders of what passes these days for spam can likewise turn out to contain some quite pleasant surprises.
In my own case, I get dozens of messages a month from any number of individuals, some of whom have perused my online content and been sufficiently motivated to write me about them.
Letters, We Get Letters
To illustrate my point, I once received correspondence from an artist manager who resides in the windy city of Chicago. He began his letter by stating that he made regular quarterly visits to my home country of Brazil:
“I read your articles on www.riodejaneiro.com. As always, you are enlightening and entertaining. I especially enjoyed today’s article, ‘Did Bossa Nova Kill the Opera?’ Keep up the great work, and I hope to meet you in person one of these days in New York.”
Another writer possessed the most elaborate résumé imaginable: a consultant to Lockheed Martin Corporation near the nation’s capital, he claimed to have had a 30-plus-year relationship with Brazil as a career diplomat, a naval officer, and well-heeled business traveler.
Interestingly, this gentleman wrote me on July 4th after having participated in an Independence Day gathering at nearby Reston, Virginia:
“Yesterday I saw a show of Brazilian music and was surprised by the enthusiastic response of the audience to a program of bossa nova and MPB, and equally impressed by the number of Brazilians and Brazilian-wannabes present.
“The next time you come to Washington, give me a call and we’ll get together for lunch or dinner and shoot the breeze.”
That’s two invitations in a row for yours truly — and I didn’t even know these guys! Still, the unusual aspect of this American’s friendly demeanor was his excellent written Portuguese, which put my own stale efforts in that department to shame.
One of the most touching compliments I came across, however, was this fairly moving one sent to me on New Year’s Eve:
“Last night a dozen friends came by for pasta, wine, a couple of Jeannette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy films. After which I pulled up your delightful writings of Carmen Miranda and Bidu Sayão [‘Two Brazilian Charmers’ and ‘The High Price of Fame in Brazil’].
“We all have a little bit of film, jazz music, and opera awareness and it made for a wonderful roundtable discussion… I, of course, included more of Ms. Sayão’s second husband. It made for a special evening of old friends. Many thanks. Have a great New Year and my best regards. Fred Danise, Oceanside, California.”
I found out later he was the grandson of Italian baritone Giuseppe Danise, who was indeed spouse number two to the little Brazilian nightingale, soprano Bidu Sayão.
Coincidentally, just before Fred sent along his e-mail, another of Danise’s relatives wrote me about the same pair of Carmen-Bidu pieces. To be exact, he was interested in anyone who could provide him with information leading to missing or lost Danise family members. Immediately, I referred the writer to long-lost relative Fred, and the Internet Website dedicated to his grandfather’s operatic legacy.
I truly hope they were able to make the electronic connection and “link up” at some point. But that’s not the least of my e-stories. It was around this same period (November 2005, if I recall correctly), when avant-garde theater director Gerald Thomas — the perennial “enfant terrible” of the contemporary Brazilian stage — took it upon himself to make contact with me as well:
“Dearest, I’ve just read a very impressive article you wrote [‘Getting to the ‘Bottom’ of Gerald Thomas’], and would love to have more info about you and how to obtain a hard copy, if there is such a thing… Would love to hear from you. LOVE, G.”
He left me his telephone number to call. Naturally, I simply had to oblige and buzz Thomas back. One thing led to another, and within a relatively short time he graciously consented to be interviewed for a longer follow-up piece (“Brazil’s Brightest ‘Prima Donna’: A Candid Talk with Gerald Thomas”) — a rare opportunity for a budding author such as me.
Not only that, he went so far as to publish my original article on his personal Website, www.geraldthomasblog.wordpress.com, and even sent me a complementary video compilation of some of his best-known theater presentations. Bravo, Gerald! Since then, we’ve been friends. In addition, I’ve seen Gerald on several occasions, once in Brazil and again in New York City.
Along different but no less memorable lines, there was this poignant message from a reader, written in delectable Brazilian Portuguese:
“I just finished reading, ‘Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians,’ with tears in my eyes, for I am the daughter of Professor Júlio Mazzei [the former coach of the New York Cosmos and mentor to Pelé and countless other Brazilian sports figures].
“My father now has Alzheimer’s disease and no longer recognizes me or even speaks, much less talks about futebol. Can you believe it? I try looking for anything at all about him para matar as saudades [‘to satisfy the longing’].
“I loved what you wrote about your father. I’ve always wanted to do an homage to my father, but do not write well in either language. God bless your talent for writing! Your dad is very proud of you, wherever he is. As my dad used to sign off: ‘Your friend in soccer,’ Marjorie Mazzei Raggo.”
No amount of rhetoric on my part could possibly have captured the feeling of satisfaction I sensed after having been the recipient of such a positively glowing testimonial. I thanked Marjorie for her warm words, especially concerning poor Professor Mazzei, who my dad once met and spoke to back in the mid-1980s.
I then told her about my own father’s troubles with debilitating stroke and dementia, and his eventual passing in 1993, to which she replied: “I feel you know exactly what I’m going through. To lose such a wonderful dad whose passion for soccer may no longer live in his memory, but will never be forgotten… I’ve always admired writers because they can keep memories alive forever so that other people can share in [them].
“Please add me to your list of fans and keep me posted on news about your wonderful writings. If ever we decide to write a book about my father we will call you!” (Sadly, the much-beloved sports figure Professor Mazzei passed away, on May 10, 2009, at the age of 78.)
I was most flattered. Not to be overlooked is the fact that I, too, have often wound up on the sending side of the technological equation.
Yes, in fact, it was probably due to my long-winded retort to Scottish journalist John Fitzpatrick’s eye-opening exposé, “For Job Seekers Brazil is No Eldorado,” in April 2003, and its subsequent appearance on various Internet Websites — which led to a well-received series of writings devoted to my experiences as a teacher in South America’s largest city, São Paulo (“How I Taught English in Brazil and Survived to Tell the Story”) — that my “career” as a cultural commentator took off in earnest.
Thanks, John! By the way, we still have a long-standing commitment for a tall, cold one in Sampa. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that.*
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* I finally got together with John Fitzpatrick in downtown São Paulo one late afternoon in July 2008. The nearest I can recall, though, is that we had much more than just one cervejinha (“beer”) between us to enliven our conversation.
There’s No Need to Fear, Timão is Here!
“Don’t worry,” my father assured the rowdy bunch of soccer aficionados that had gathered outside the Cinco Esquinas (Five Corners) Bar & Grill, near the central part of the city known as Parí, “Corinthians will do it.”
“What? You can’t be serious?” exclaimed Azevedinho, one of dad’s old cronies. “Annibal, tell me you’re joking?”
“That stupid team hasn’t won a damned thing in years,” roared another, “and you’re saying they’ll be champions? Quick, someone, call an ambulance!”
“I’m telling you, Corinthians will win,” dad repeated, with even more gusto than before. “I’ll cut off my neck if they don’t go all the way,” he declared, as he defiantly left the bar, followed by the raucous crowd of doubting Thomases.
Dad was on his way to Morumbi Stadium, an imposing Coliseum-like structure situated in the choicest section of São Paulo, accompanied by my mother, her younger sister, and his brother-in-law. They were to be the guests of my father’s oldest nephew, Fredemari, who was shortly to become the chief administrator of Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, and were to celebrate his timely promotion in fairly big fashion: by going to the concluding match in the Paulista Championship between the underdog black-and-white-striped Timão (the name Corinthians followers gave their club) and the Ponte Preta squad.
Arriving early at the stadium, they sat down behind a glass-enclosed partition in a specially reserved corporate booth, cushioned from the delicate blows of paper cups, flying debris, and stray confetti strewn about everywhere by the thousands of delirious soccer fans assembled for this exciting occasion. They were flanked as well by the governor of the State of São Paulo along with other notables, politicians, and dignitaries.
The date was October 1977. Corinthians had last won the elusive Paulista title back in 1955, the year after my birth. Since then, the club had weathered 22 dismal seasons of ever-worsening drought conditions without ever having won a single campeonato. It was more than time for the team to make up the lost years and break this nearly quarter-century curse inflicted upon them — and dad did not want to miss out.
“Thanks be to God,” my father pronounced upon his return to New York, after having taken the month off to visit family and friends, “Corinthians did it.” At this point, he furtively crossed himself, which I correctly took for reverence.
“They did?” I quickly noted, giving my parents a big welcome home hug. “Did what?”
“They won the Paulista Championship,” he croaked, in barely audible tones.
“What happened to your voice?” I inquired. Mom then intervened, and explained that my father had yelled himself hoarse at the stadium after Corinthians had finally regained their championship club crown.
“Oh, I see,” was my absent-minded reply. Undisturbed by my lack of interest in this latest news flash, dad asked how I had spent the last four weeks that they had been away.
“Well, I went out last Sunday to Giants Stadium with Uncle Daniel,” I answered, “and we both saw Pelé’s final match with the Cosmos and his old team, Santos.”
“How was the game?” dad whispered, his words taking on the sound quality of a badly tuned radio broadcast.
“Boring. Low scoring, no thrills, no nothing. And the weather was awful, too. Cold, damp, and drizzly.”
“What did you expect from soccer in October?” he snorted. “Ridiculous!”
“Yeah, but there were seventy-seven thousand people in the stands. And Pelé gave a moving farewell speech. How was it at the stadium in São Paulo?” I asked innocently.
As if in blind obedience to some invisible, preconceived cue, dad pulled out his copy of the most recent edition of the Brazilian magazine Manchete. “See for yourself,” he asserted proudly.
There, on its front and back covers, was a splendid panoramic display of Morumbi Stadium, filled to the rafters with one hundred and fifty thousand screaming fans. Huge plumes of gray smoke issued from every conceivable vantage point, along with hundreds of fire cracker explosions, dozens of colorful balloons, miles of waving banners, and bushels of ticker-tape streamers, all vividly capturing the festive Carnival atmosphere provoked by Timão’s amazing victory performance — with my parents smack-dab in the middle of it all.
“Wow,” I mused to myself, wishing like crazy that I had been there with them, “it must’ve been quite a show.”
“You wouldn’t have believed it,” said dad, all misty-eyed and venerable for once, “but your mother and I witnessed it. Imagine nothing for 20 years and then, all of a sudden, a miracle. And I told everyone that because I was there, cheering for Corinthians, that they simply had to win, but no one believed me.”
My father’s voice was almost gone now, as he went to the kitchen to get a glass of water to soothe his aching throat.
“I bet they believe you now, huh dad?” I smiled knowingly, while gawking at the magazine photograph.
“Pois é,” was his strained final say on the matter. “Yes, indeed.”
My father had been what was once most commonly referred to as a corinthiano roxo or, for lack of a better translation, a “purple-faced Corinthians fanatic.” He truly ascribed to the lyrics of that old stadium standard (author unknown):
Doutor, eu não me engano,
Meu coração é corinthiano.
Doctor, I’m not mistaken,
But my heart beats Corinthian.
Indeed, all serious Timão addicts were widely renowned for their collectively shared suffering, usually experienced at home or in the stadium, and in clamorous accompaniment to the troubles of their luckless team.
Dad was no different. He had first felt his own unrequited pangs for the club during the daunting Depression years of the 1930s, as a less than academically inspired youngster brought up in the cement surroundings of São Paulo.
He frequented the club’s Parque São Jorge sports complex, located in the burgeoning middle-class neighborhood of Tatuapé, where it occupies enormously expansive property space to this day. He loved to hang around the main lounge, attempting to play snooker with the local pool sharks and trying to participate in the conversations of the more senior club members, all of whom had scrupulously analyzed the swings of the pendulum in the team’s ever-vacillating fortunes with the solemn exactitude of astrophysics.
With the aid of friends, but more specifically through the connections of his Corinthians-employed nephew Frede, dad became a lifetime member of the club, as had most of his relatives, with the notable exception of brother-in-law Arlindo, who was of Italian descent and, therefore, more of an “in the blood” Palmeiras rooter.
I suppose there were stray sheep to be found in just about every family’s flock, including ours, but our Uncle Arlindo was an especially lost cause. He would go into paroxysms of distress every time a foul was declared against his favorite green-shirted players. He would then proceed to berate the offenders, as well as rain down a hailstorm of abuse onto the head of the profligate referee responsible for the call, until finally being ejected bodily from the playing field. And those were his good days!
Uncle Arlindo reshaped team fanaticism into a pure art form.
All Glory and Honor Is Yours, Corinthians
Much as he had done with opera, film, and classical music, my father was the major soccer mover in my life, and in the life of our Brazilian immigrant family. His all-out love for the sport, especially where it concerned Corinthians (and every four years, the Brazilian national team), was what most clearly permeated our home environment during those precious times when the constant demands of work and school were assiduously set aside for the simple pleasures of soccer.
Dad’s unsinkable enthusiasm for the game can be traced back to his early life experiences. The many outrageous soccer stories he was wont to recall from time to time, in addition to other similarly embellished tales, were told with a marked infectiousness and lively brio that are as difficult to recapture in writing as they were in the retelling. Nevertheless, they formed the crux of my own personal opinions about this highly entertaining subject almost from the moment I could speak.
My father used to tell me about the various friendships he had formed over the years, especially the one with Oswaldo Nunes, who I met in 1979. He was another of those overzealous soccer fans one hears so much about — and rightly so, for Oswaldo’s famous uncle, the great Manoel “Neco” Nunes, was one of the original Corinthians Club idols from the early decades of the twentieth century.
Considered by knowledgeable Brazilian soccer buffs as a legendary sports figure along the lines of a Babe Ruth or a Knute Rochne, Neco Nunes had been a pioneer player in his day, and was a worthy participant, too, in the national team’s legacy. His life-sized bronze bust, still to be seen outside the lobby of the main administration building (where I had first gazed upon it during my initial visits there), is a testament to Neco’s superb soccer credentials and historic contributions to the club and to the sport.
Another of my father’s friends, Nelsinho, who I also made the personal acquaintance of, was an ex-member of the 1955 Corinthians championship team. He worked as an athletic trainer at the club, and remained a recognized mainstay there for years once his playing days were over.
In fact, it was largely due to the generosity of people like my cousin Fredemari and the other club officials that kept many former players out of the streets and on the company payroll when nothing else was available to them. One sensed the profound gratitude these proud men felt for Corinthians, and the total allegiance they swore to the club, due to this extra degree of compassion shown them by the powers above. And not many people knew about this magnanimity, save for a select few.
“But for the grace of God and Corinthians go I,” dad once told me, as another of his impoverished pals passed by to greet him.
The Long and Winding Soccer Road
While my father had lived in São Paulo, he was able to associate freely with others of the original club champions who were still in permanent residence there, including the ever-popular Baltazar, another best buddy from the Golden Age of fifties futebol. But all that changed once we moved to the soccer-less streets of 1960s New York.
Because of our fundamentally Brazilian sports background, however, it can be stated, with complete conviction, that my family and I were fortunate eyewitnesses to the incredible growth and spread of soccer in the United States. On the flip side, I can also testify to the agonizingly slow and painful deterioration of the same sport in my native land at the hands of incompetent coaches, unscrupulous club owners, and overly avaricious players.
My own childhood memories of the game were filled with scenes of long, hot summers on weed-covered playing fields, learning to play soccer with my dad and younger brother, always competing for attention and space with the other popular outdoor activities of sandlot baseball, schoolyard stick ball, and cement-court basketball.
I can recall one Sunday afternoon in the mid-sixties, when dad took us to see our first exhibition match at Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island, where we thrilled to the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Santos’ star scorer, O Rei (“The King”) Pelé, with Europe’s two-time Athlete of the Year, Eusébio, the Lion of Angola, who despite his ferocious-sounding epithet was actually born in Mozambique.
I can remember viewing the 1970 World Cup matches from Mexico on the giant closed-circuit screens at Madison Square Garden, and dancing in the aisles there with my family and our compatriots (as a huge Corinthians banner was unfurled) when the imperturbable Brazilian squad trounced Italy’s Forza Azzurri (“The Blue Force”) by a score of 4-1, to retire the coveted Jules Rimet trophy with an historic third world title.
I closely followed the late-seventies phase of Pelé’s American career with the New York Cosmos, and even went to many of their home games at the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey, to watch world-class players of the caliber of ex-Lazio striker Giorgio Chinaglia, the German “Kaiser” Franz Beckenbauer, the Portuguese Seninho, the Brazilian Carlos Alberto, the Dutchman Johan Neeskens, and the Croatian Vladislav Bogicevic, attempt to transform the fledgling North American Soccer League into one of international standing and competitiveness.
I looked back fondly on a nervy conversation my father had in the early eighties with Professor Júlio Mazzei, the late soccer coach, teacher, and mentor to Pelé, as dad asked him over lunch why more Brazilians weren’t hired by the Cosmos as starters; to which, the ever-loquacious Professor Mazzei responded that the owners of the team had demanded more players from the Continent because of the higher proportion of European immigrants living in the U.S. In other words, it was strictly a marketing ploy, but he felt sympathy for my father’s frustration in wanting to see more of his fellow countrymen play here, and, quite naturally, commiserated with him over it.
I empathized with the league’s later monetary misfortunes, as it inevitably folded in 1984 due to serious lack of funding and interest, as well as television ratings. Many (but not all) of the overpaid international stars who had come here were on their last soccer legs anyway, and went on to finish up their field careers as spent war veterans with very little left to thrill testy North American audiences.
Moreover, I managed to observe the slow and steady buildup of the sport throughout the remainder of the eighties and nineties, up to its present participative level.
And during the time of my residency in São Paulo, I withstood the steady onslaught of constantly televised games; the endlessly confusing soccer tournaments; the incomprehensible club playing schedules; the scandalous Wanderley Luxemburgo corruption investigations and the shocking revelations they ultimately disclosed of money-laundering and feather-bedding activities; and, worst of all, the pathetic and self-serving press conference given by coach Mário Zagallo, after Brazil’s embarrassing loss to the French at the 1998 World Cup finals in Paris.
Surely, I surmised, with a deep sense of saudade (“longing”) for the glory days of soccer, the final reckoning for futebol was close at hand. But then, in Japan, in the year 2002, the Brazilians won their fifth world championship, and all previous soccer transgressions were dutifully absolved.
Keeping Faith with Football
Earnest soccer fans will argue, of course, that the driving force behind their adored teams was fueled not by greed but by passion; that the outstanding mental and physical attributes of the greatest players were complemented not by the bulging balances of their bank accounts but by the overpowering love, affection, and respect they showed for their sport.
My father would spin in his grave if he ever caught whiff of the stench of scandal that had wrapped itself around his favorite pastime. On the other hand, he might also have taught us to continue to believe in the spirit of the team; that despite the recent setbacks, the hard times, and the terrible moments of loss, there would soon come the grand celebrations, the good times, and the glorious triumphs to be, if we would only keep faith with the game.
And dad was the living embodiment of that principle: his own faith was of the type that would never move mountains, but instead willed his teams to win.
As young children, and later as adolescents, my brother and I looked to our parents for help and guidance with all aspects of our lives, believing them to possess outsized hearts to go with their heads and hands; always telling us what to do and when to do it, much as anyone’s parents might. We also viewed them as godlike creatures — indestructible, infallible, and all-wise in the ways of the world.
So how could we, as rational human beings, possibly ever have believed that dad could really bring his favorite clubs back from the brink of sudden death, to deliver them to the promised winner’s stand, and turn team despair into total victory?
It seemed inconceivable for us to accept that our father had made some sort of devious pact with a minor soccer demon; rather, it appeared more likely he might have made all of this come to pass through the sheer force of his personality — not to mention several well-placed slaps to the knee.
But regardless of whether it was logical or not, we eventually became true believers in spite of our doubts. We needed to believe, for dad had convinced us to believe — because he was himself convinced of his gift, firmly and categorically.
As if in imitation of some ancient Eucharistic rite, he gave full credence to the notion that his own manifest presence in our living room, or at a soccer stadium, could somehow turn the proverbial tide against an implacable foe and confer credibility upon Corinthians, earn esteem for Brazil, or nurture respect in the Cosmos — and, by dint of it all, acquire safe passage into football heaven, for whosoever was the lucky recipient of his brash beneficence. Isn’t that what all purple-faced fanatics aspire to?
Mind you, it didn’t always work out that way; but, like grace itself, it was there for the asking. And, if perchance, the teams really did need dad’s earthly intercession… so be it.
It’s been almost 20 years since my father passed away, yet I can’t help thinking that he would have gotten a tremendous kick out of Brazil’s latter-day World Cup wins, which, sadly, he never got to see. He would also have been among the first to join in and sing, right along with us, the popular anthem for Timão, “Salve o Corinthians.”
Perhaps the song could, in the end, serve some higher purpose: as a universal rallying cry for soccer clubs everywhere. The lyrics curiously read like a long-lost biblical passage — only insert the name of “Corinthians” for any team or organization, substitute the country of “Brazil” for any nation or continent, and one would still have a rousing enough theme-song that could reverberate in a thousand soccer stadiums, with the true sentiments that die-hard fans have always felt for their beloved sport.
Dad would have wanted it so:
Salve o Corinthians,
O campeão dos campeões,
Eternamente dentro dos nossos corações,
Salve o Corinthians,
De tradições e glórias mil,
Tu és orgulho dos desportistas do Brasil.
(Lyrics by Benedito Lauro D’Ávila)
Hail to you, Corinthians,
The champion of champions,
You are and forever shall be in our hearts,
Hail to you, Corinthians,
With a thousand glories and traditions behind you,
You are the pride of every sports-lover in Brazil.
(Translation by the Author)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes