Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Touch of Brazilian Magic

The magic of Brazilian futebol was always calling me to play

Since returning to Canada and its arctic winters I've had plenty of time to read in the long dark nights, and I've found a wonderful book to provide solace to my saudades

The book explains to me in a palpable way what makes futebol so special, or more to the point, what makes Brazilian futebol players so good. The answer goes beyond the sport and soccer can't be divided from Brazil anymore than Brazil cannot be separated from the beautiful game it nurtured from birth. 

Alex Bellos, the author of Futebol,The Brazilian Way of Life, has produced a masterly work of literary journalism in telling that story in a succinct and moving way. It is a story that is bigger than the country where the sport is played in with the passion of a new religion.

I originally wrote this piece below as part of Temporary Carioca a travelogue I kept during my visit to Rio de Janeiro a few years ago. I can no longer play soccer as I did once, and during my stay it was difficult to keep any pace in 35 + Celcius temperatures with even the most minor effort. Yet, the soccer gods played with me, taunting me to forget the heat and play a free-spirited game on the beach, in the alley or at the schoolyard. 
Throughout my stay in Rio I found that there was rarely a day I did not see or hear a futbol being kicked somewhere across my path. All too often at night I could hear players yelling from a nearby indoor club where balls bounced heavily on a concrete wall next to our bedroom.

Occasionally on the street I would run across a ball that had been kicked over a fence from a nearby sandlot. Wearing sandals I took my time kicking it back. At 40 Celsius I was content to retrieve balls only. Sometimes a ball found its way through a crowd at Ipanema beach, arriving at my feet, enticing the soccer player within to show off his stuff. “Come on, man.” Instead I put a foot to the ball and made a simple pass direct to a dozen or more young people who had a lifetime of show-stopping heroics ahead of them.

Wayward soccer balls have always had a way of finding me, then urging me to come back to the sport if only for a moment of reflected glory. I had kicked makeshift balls made of rubber and clothing strung together while playing on a makeshift field near a village on the way to Mt. Everest in Nepal. Once I found a game in Guatemala City when a team needed a player to even a side. In Mexico at high elevation I played a portion of a game before the altitude and heat got to me so they made me a referee for the rest of the game. In England I played games on a village road well into the night with two brothers keen to have someone to play against. As a youth in Colorado, decades before soccer became popular in North America, I kicked a ball against walls and fences at university as a way of seeking equanimity in a turbulent world of my own making.

One night while walking along a beach in Cabraglia in the state of Bahai, I came across a game being played on a worn tennis court. The players wore old tennis shoes and some played barefoot, yet their skills were well advanced at a tender age. Then extraordinarily an errant ball flew into the air and bounced well out of bounds and came to a stop on the sand, confronting me. Giant waves from the Atlantic crashed not a few meters away in the last light of day. This particular ball dared me to take it ---skillfully. The young men were watching. I knew that local custom demands that when a ball arrives it is imperative to control it with style. Wearing sandals I flipped the ball on my right foot. Then I put the ball to my left foot and guided the ball back along the pavement, bringing it back to the eager players anxious to get on with their game.
What is a carioca? 

I coveted the moments. This was no ordinary ball and I was no ordinary gringo. I was respectful with the ball, it was the sum of all those feet that had touched it over its time. I passed on my inside left foot to their coach standing on the sideline 20 meters away. He nodded as he guided the ball effortlessly from his foot, up his leg as if it were on a string, bounced it on his knee and in mid-air, shot it flying back to the young men. The show was as much for me as for the players. With a respectful glint in our eyes, we two old warriors shared a touch of Brazilian magic between us, and with the future, the present and the past.

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