June 28, 2014 -- Maragogi, Alagos, Brazil
Brazil escaped national tragedy by the narrowest of margins today.
The national soccer team managed to survive a penalty shootout against a Chilean team that refused to concede defeat during the World Cup "knockout stage." After the 90-minute regulation time, the score stood one-to-one. The pressure of David Luis on a Chile's Jara trying to clear a Neymar corner kick (that first hit the head of Brazil's Thiago Silva) resulted in the first point of the game at the 18th minute. But the collective joy that coalesced audiences across the nation quickly faded as Chile's Alexis Sanchez scored a brilliant equalizer 14 minutes later.
Despite heavy attack from both sides through the second half, neither team could collect an additional goal. Into the two 15-minute periods of over-time, more of the same: no goals — only valiant effort. The 49% (Brazil)/51% (Chile) possession rate and 51 fouls committed between the two teams (28 for Brazil with 4 yellow cards and 23 for Chile with 3 yellow cards) speaks to the intensity of the battle.
Also consider the level of mental stamina it took for Brazil to attempt 574 shots with a 68 percent completion rate and Chile 593 passes with a 72 percent completion rate. In all, FIFA calculated Brazil had 23 total attempts on goal to Chile's 13.
The tied score at the end of overtime left the matter to be decided by the nauseating process of the penalty kick shootout.
David Luis of Brazil was the first to step to the line. He nailed his shot. His colleague, goalie Julio Cesar, then had to face Chilean striker Pinilla. Cesar blocked the shot.
The audience at the beachside restaurant where I watched the game went ape shit. I joined them. Then, horror: Willian kicked his shot two feet wide of the left post. Cesar again is the hero by blocking Chile's next attempt, a shot from the gifted attacker Alexis. Then Brazil's Marcelo manages to add another goal, despite Chile's goalie Bravo's effort to get a hand on it. The next Chilean shot finds its target before the situation again becomes dicey for the host nation: Bravo stops a shot from Brazil's Hulk. Next, Chile's Diaz levels the score.
I truly am praying with fervor at this point: "Please, God. For Brazil. Please let them win this. Let their hopes live. Let their happiness survive." I suspect this prayer was not unique to me, though I'm sure many Chileans were praying as well.
Two more shots: one for each team. Neymar Jr. stepped to line and nailed his shot for a goal. Then Chile's Jara headed to the line with the weight of the world on his shoulders. His shot hit the post — rejected. The matter is put to rest. Brazil wins!
Brazil lives to fight another day and the people of the small village of Maragogi in the state of Alagos erupted into a sea of celebratory hugs, bottle rocket explosions and dancing.
A fireman from Brasilia named Anderson, whom I'd befriended on the beach the day prior through the mutually satisfactory act of juggling a ball, embraced me in a bear hug and twirled me around like a little girl probably 10 times before returning me to terra firma.
"The idea is to build on this. When you win like this you come out stronger. We're going to tell them that so they can appreciate what they've done," Luiz Felipe Scolari, Brazil's head coach, said following the match. (According to a FIFA report.)
Brazil will need to "build on this" to face the terrific challenge that faces the team in the quarterfinals.
Following the match, a gaggle of children, who, like Anderson, I'd found common ground with through a game of beach soccer during the halftime break, led a procession of several tourists — essentially a half dozen English guys who'd known each other since they were kids and continue to travel the world together and me, the owner of the ball —through the streets to find a field. The tide had come in, so the beach was unavailable.
The first field, at the local police station, was off-limits for the day, so we proceeded to a more remote location on the outskirts of town, where we played on the edge of a larger field already occupied by a group of locals, so we contented ourselves to play in some passable vegetation, though most of us wiped out at least once in patches of mud or amidst the taller grass along the periphery marking the perimeter of a swampy channel demarcating the eastern edge of our pitch.
We selected captains among the children and let them divide us into teams. Much to my amazement, the children selected me even before they were through with the Englishmen! The machismo mentality, it seems, had not yet infected their outlook.
There we played away the remaining minutes of the day.
Just as darkness began to blanket Maragogi, we returned to the beach, where I bid adieu to the Englishmen and took a cleansing dip in the warm waters of the Atlantic before rejoining my friend Anderson to watch Colombia destroy Uruguay [minus the penalized serial biter Luis Su rez, whom FIFA banished from the 2014 World Cup — plus several additional club games].
Colombia's 2-0 victory sets up what is sure to be an aggressive, exciting and emotional quarterfinal between Colombia and Brazil.
The rest of the quarterfinal groupings will be decided over the course of the next few days. The fate of the U.S. will be determined on July 1 when the team meets Belgium in Salavdor, Brazil, just down the coast from the site of their last match in Recife.
As for Maragogi and the kids ... they now own my ball: a present from me to them. The very least I could do to say thank you.
Before leaving town to head for Salvadore, I, too, received a gift. Anderson, who had told me many legends of Brazilian soccer — especially as they relate to his favorite team, Vasco Da Gama —handed me a bag and said, "Sorry, I could not wash it; I have worn it." In my hands I discovered his own Vasco jersey!
To Anderson, it was an aberration to find a woman alone on the beach playing soccer. It was a sign from God. So he took me under his wing, as my Brazilian guardian angel in Maragogi. And he taught the secret of dribbling like his favorite player, Felipe "Maestro." Also the moves of "drible chapéu" (in which the ball is flicked up and over a defender's head, often as the attacker spins around the defense on the other side to collect the ball behind him) and "drible de vaca" (in which an attacker sends the ball around one side of a slow defender as the player rounds the defender's opposite side and reconnects with the ball behind him).
He taught me names and directed me to video of players such as Edmundo, Dener and Neto.
And he gave me the first good reason I've ever had to support a foreign club with which I have no personal relationship: Vasco Da Gama was the first Brazilian club to integrate white and black players.
The mixture of races that one finds in Brazil, unmatched, perhaps, by any other country, is, according to Anderson, one of the primary reasons for Brazil's brilliance on the soccer field.
He explained to me that the jersey was black and white as a symbol of integration with a red cross to represent the indigenous people as well as the club's spiritual leanings, and yellow stars for Asians.
"Without Vasco, no Pelé," he said. And, he added,"Argentina doesn't have this."