Into the Belly of the Beast

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    By Matt Skenazy

    We followed the street together, no real destination except away from our team and the Fluminese soccer compound that had been our home and our prison for the past 14 days. After two weeks of eight-hour days of soccer, we needed a vacation from our vacation.
    The music of U2 floated through the warm evening as we wound in and out of cobblestone alleys, the smell of black beans and rice nipping at our heels. Old men lined the streets. Sitting in pairs in front of their houses on red patio furniture, they filled and emptied their tiny glasses with Skol beer again and again, jovially getting more and more drunk.
    The flavella was supposed to be a dangerous area, the most dangerous ghetto in all of Rio de Janeiro, no place for three Americans who spoke little to no Portuguese to wander around at night. I was scared, but comfortable. It was Saturday night, the whole town winding down after the workweek. The next day they would attend church. The church that had been towering above us, moonlit saints watching us walk through their flavella.
    We wanted to see the Real Brazil, the "dirty Rio" our friends had told us about. Asking our guide for a taste of the real Brazil was useless; after we asked to go to a local flea market where we could buy cheap handmade crafts he innocently guided us on our air-conditioned charter bus to a massive mall complete with McDonalds and surf shops.
    And although we knew that our excursion would probably land us in trouble with our coach and the director of the Fluminese F??tbol Club, one of the most storied Division 1 clubs in all of Brazil, the flavella was our only option for the escape we needed. So we went, past hot dog stands and stray dogs. Past more drunk old men and kids on rusty bicycles so big that their bare feet just touched the pedals. We didn’t speak a lot, and when we did it was either in Spanish or hushed English. We wanted as few people as possible to figure out that we were American- after all, there had to be a reason this was the most dangerous place in Rio and we didn’t really want to find it out.I began playing soccer, like many kids, when I was five years old. My parents made me, and I’m sure that they have been regretting it ever since. Trips to Florida, New Jersey, Colorado, Minnesota, North Carolina, Dallas, and San Antonio have no doubt put a sizeable dent in their wallets over the years. But everyone knows, even at five, that New Jersey isn’t the heart of soccer. It’s Brazil, where the entire country lives and breathes for the sport. Where a win creates heroes and holidays and a loss ruins careers and lives.
    It took years of watching Brazilians on TV, of practicing their moves in slow motion by myself in the back yard-the Ronaldo, the Zico-before I finally made the pilgrimage to Brazil with the UCSC men’s soccer team this past August. It was the perfect time for us to go, to improve our game, and more importantly to bond. It’s supposed to be a rebuilding year here at UCSC. With 10 new players and a new head coach, expectations in the Division III men’s soccer world are low. Except ours.
    "I don’t feel this is a rebuilding year at all, we have the talent and the desire to do very well but I think a lot of coaches and players around the country are definitely underestimating us," coach Chamberlain said. After reaching the NCAA quarterfinals in 2003 and the championship game in 2004, this season won’t be a success for us unless we win a National Championship.
    "We hold ourselves to a very high standard," team captain Steve Wondolowski said. "We know what it takes to win [in the NCAA Tournament] and we know we can compete and win at that level."
    After two years as an assistant coach, Dan Chamberlain, 26, a UCSC alumni, is our new head coach. He took over after seven-year coach Paul Holocher, who single handedly built the UCSC men’s soccer program into a national powerhouse, resigned to take a position as the head coach at Division I Cal Poly San Luis Obispo this past spring. Holocher was a mentor to Chamberlain, myself and everyone who played for him during his tenure at UCSC. "He was a huge influence on me," Chamberlain said. "Most of my styling is from him." Holocher built a program founded on the emphasis of hard, blue-collar work over individual talent.
    After two weeks training in the verdant hills of Xarem, just outside of Rio De Janeiro, I began to appreciate the style Holocher taught and that Chamberlain is continuing here at UCSC. The Brazilians play differently than we do. Children grow up with soccer in their blood, and the incredible talent they posses lead the Brazilians to emphasize individual play and fluid creativity over the team game we have been taught. We played eight professional teams and in all eight games we were outplayed and outscored as the Brazilians danced around us. Willing the ball wherever they wanted with only the slightest touch, it became clear to us why Brazil has won more World Cup championships than any other nation in the world-they’re really good. And although we left the pitch after every game with our heads low (UCSC men’s soccer isn’t used to losing; in the past three years we are 65-6), we should have been proud. Every coach came up to Chamberlain after the game and praised our team’s work ethic and team defense. Our blue-collar work kept us in many games where we were outmatched. That style, which couldn’t beat the dancing Brazilians, has helped us back in the United States so far this year as we are 8-1 so far this season, and have outscored our opponents 25-1. The only goal against us came on an own goal.
    "Every year we need freshmen to step up, and every year they do," team captain David Frank said. Despite Frank’s optimism at the beginning of this season, I was still worried. Not so much about losing Holocher, but more about the fact that our team was returning only five starters from last year. We have a whole new team this year-12 new players with question marks next to their names. Were the new guys good enough? Would they buy into the philosophy and style of UCSC soccer? Would their personalities fit in on an already eccentric team? But, with our players sardined three to a 15×15 room in Brazil, and despite my pessimism, we quickly erased those question marks.
    We learned all there was to know about each other. Like who would spend $80 to talk to his girlfriend back home every night, or who had a poker addiction (everyone), or who would snort a line of sugar 18 inches long to win a $3 bet, and who, if he had a little more time probably would have gotten married to a girl who didn’t speak English after knowing her for little more than three days. We learned more than personality quirks.
    "After Brazil I trust all the young guys, they all proved themselves," Frank said. We learned that, besides trust in each other, we all shared one important quality: the desire to win. Not that we won much. But you could see the overpowering pain in everyone’s eyes after each loss and you could hear it in the silence on our bus as we wound through the back alleys of Rio and you could feel it in every training, every day, as we pushed ourselves and each other to get better. As our team came together off the field, despite our exhaustion and frustration with losing, we began to play more beautiful f??tbol on the field. So there we were. We had spent two weeks immersed in soccer and we wanted our escape. The flavella. We wound through alleys and side yards with the church hovering above us. Occasional dirty looks were shot in our direction but they quickly turned to smiles when we would utter a well-accented "boa noite." We really had no reason to be worried, the three of us didn’t look like tourists and we had no money, cameras, or valuables with us. But I still felt that at any moment we were going to be kidnapped and held for ransom.
    Twenty minutes of silent walking found us in front of a large, caged in soccer field unlike any you’ll see in the United States. The pitch was cracked cement, the goals were well-placed PVC pipe, and the barefooted eight year-olds wore smiles as they ran circles around each other. We sat there for half an hour as those kids did things with the ball that I still can’t do. That’s what people do in Brazil. They play soccer. All the time, wherever they can, on any type of field, soccer is their life.
    And there we were, back at a soccer field, in the middle of the night, our escape complete, or maybe a complete failure. Escape from soccer in Brazil, I realized, was impossible. And for me, too, its been impossible. Since my parents first forced me to play, soccer has dictated where I’ve traveled, where I decided to go to college, and who my friends have been. Now, this year, soccer, and Brazil, have given me 10 new brothers who also cannot escape from soccer, and who have the same purpose that I’ve always had: to get better, to work hard, to win a National Championship. And to enjoy the beautiful game.

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