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A Childhood Tale

March 4, 2011

Neymar & Lucas: futebol-arte

The 2012 London Games are fast approaching, and the Brazilian Seleção qualified in style for the event by winning the competitive South American pre-Olympic football tournament last month in Peru. It was a dazzling display of Jogo Bonito, with  goals-a-plenty from the star-duo Lucas and Neymar, who performed the kind of samba football that made us think back on the days of Pelé and Tostão.

Indeed, with that nostalgic mindset and this wretched Canadian Winter settling in (and inspired by Lucas and Neymar), I found myself indulging in my childhood memories; recapturing my own past as a footballer.

Or “footballer”, I should say.

Without one iota of doubt, I am amongst the worst talents Brazilian football has produced. Ever.

As a teenager, *awkward* was a generous understatement to describe the structure of my physique. I was a sad and sorry sight. My legs were incredibly long and skinny, and in order to disguise their unattractiveness, I (embarrassedly) would often wear two pairs of pants; in order to appear somewhat “bulkier”.

A very sorry sight, indeed.

My feet have been the same size since I was 11: size 12! I have shoes from Grade 8 which fit me perfectly and I still wear. Incidentally, my hands and nose were also just as big then as they are now. I looked like a tall and thin teenage version of a dejected Cyrano de Bergerac.

Nevertheless, I put my lankiness to good use by becoming a reasonably decent basketball player in the high-school team. My large hands allowed me to become an effective three-point shooter, and my long legs granted me the ability to jump like a rabbit on cocaine.

But when it came to the customary weekend football match with my friends, my feet showed no such coordination or panache.

They were utterly useless.

However, they (my despicable feet) were able to produce a few magical football stories nonetheless. They are Brazilian after all!

I will tell you my favourite tale…

My buddies and I (far left, in the Barcelona kit) in 2000: notice that while Netinho is taking the corner, my attention is somewhere else. Hardly a Messi. As you can see, the goal posts here are indicated by two sophisticated sandals.

The year was 1996.

It was an absolutely special year for me, for I conquered Olympic gold then.

Yes, I did.

I was only 13, but I remember it very vividly. It was a glorious time.

Ronaldo was football’s greatest star of the moment; Brazil were crowned World Champions two years priorly; and the Summer Olympics were upon us.

I was still new to the big Midwestern city of Campo Grande, having moved from the town I grew up in (Rio Brilhante) a year earlier. Everything was still fresh and fun for me, and I had made many new friends (some of them are featured in the photo above, taken four years later).  We lived in a large and gated condominium complex that was filled with families, and kids used to spend most of their time outside playing sports, games and chilling in the sun. I was one of them happy lads.

There were a lot of open green areas between the buildings, which were used -obviously- for football and football only. Those improvised pitches were mayhem on weekends, with kids running and kicking about incessantly.

Inspired by the imminent games in Atlanta, a few of us put together a mini version of our own Olympics. It ran for two days, comprising several little teams, and it featured long jump, beach volleyball, running,  and (of course) football.

My football memories from those two golden days are very vivid, but I can’t recall much regarding the other games. Frankly, who cares?! Football was indeed the highlight of our mini-Olympics!

We played it ‘3 on 3’…or perhaps ‘4 on 4’…now my football memories are failing me.

In any case, it was marvellous. Trust me.

As per usual, due to my (lack of) skills, I was picked as a keeper – the least desired position of all. And Bruno, a little devilish speedster with shaggy hair, was the star striker of our “Seleção”.

Surprisingly enough, my sizable hands and Bruno’s fantastical feet took us all the way to the final, after winning our first two laborious matches.

And the stage was set. The spectacle was about to happen.

The pitch was rather small, no bigger than a regular futsal (indoor footy) court.

And due to our limited resources, the goal posts were made up of two large construction bricks that rested on the ground. I stood in between them, proudly, without nets or anything. Just me and my bricks.

The rule for goals was that the ball could not travel at a higher altitude than the keeper’s waist. So strikers had to keep their shots low. Additionally, if the ball hit the posts (bricks!), causing their placement on the ground to shift drastically, it was considered “ball out”. The distance between the two posts (bricks!) was somewhat minuscule, measured by the carefully walked ten steps of the team member who had the largest feet: me.

Showtime!

The hearts were beating fast…and we were off…

It was late afternoon, and the skies were rather bruised. This was June after all, in the middle of South America’s Winter season.

The mild temperatures didn’t help cooling off our moods. The game started in competitive fashion, and we were all tense.

The stakes, in our minds, were incredibly high. For all intents and purposes, this was an Olympic football final.

We are five minutes into the game. Bruno holds the ball in front of me, hounded by two opponents. Without a way out, he decides to back-pass it to me, gently.

The ball calmly travels towards my direction, and no one is near me. I, for some obscure and idiotic reason, decide to run towards it. I plan on kicking it as hard as I can towards the opposing keeper, in order to scare him a bit, you know…

I approach the ball, I cock my right leg, I kick it hard…and I miss it. I catch sight of my foot, going up into the air…and I see no ball.

I basically fall on my arse, pick myself up quickly, look behind me…and watch the ball travel slowly and gracefully, uninterruptedly and nonchalantly…past the two large bricks, and into the…

…GGGGGOOOOAAAALLLLL…..

Our opponents celebrate my buffoonery. Bruno looks at me in disbelief. I continue to stare at my “net”. “Did I just do that?”, I ask myself in shame, utterly gutted.

But there was no time for self-pity or anything of the sort. This was a FINAL after all. And by Zeus, we shall win this thing!

Quickly, we pick ourselves up again, and the team begins to charge ahead. Bruno is leading the way, making sure that no one else back-passed anything to me any longer.

Our mentality was now set to ‘attack, attack, attack!’

Miraculously, we score a goal! Bruno sticks it into their “net” beautifully after dribbling past their most feared defense-man: Guilherme.

Guilherme, or “Negão”, as we amicably called him, was a very muscular black 14-year old. The only one of us to have pristine abs and biceps, he was a wonder of nature. Fast, furious and ferociously physical, Negão resembled a teen Cafu with the body of Lucio. But Bruno, with his zippy Bebeto-like feet, and never intimidated, makes the whole thing look ridiculously easy by avoiding a harsh tackle and dribbling past their keeper: 1 x 1.

A classic match was about to unfold before our very eyes.

Tension dominates the second half. Night begins to fall, and we are all exhausted from the pressure.

The match goes into extra-time.

The match remains 1 x 1.

And we are into the harsh reality of a penalty-shootout. Suddenly, I (as their star keeper!) am under immense pressure.

The crowd of fans is growing insanely louder – all three of them (one of which is a dog).

Between the two “posts” of the opposing side, bravely guarding their “net”, was a scrawny boy nicknamed Piauí.

Piauí is the name of a Northeastern State in Brazil, and it is also one of the poorest and most miserable regions in the country.

Piauí – the boy – had a little and bony body, which was topped by a ridiculously disproportional and monumental head, flattened on the crown, and with ears that stuck out like wings.

We thought he resembled a malnourished native teen of Piauí, and so he was naturally given such an honorable nickname.

Ah, kids and their sensitive ways…

The shootout begins. The dog barks loudly, but all we hear is silence. Completely focused on the task at hand, we are like a team of Jedi Knights.

But Piauí and myself are out of luck. The first shots go into the “net”. Towards the end of the shootout, though, each side misses a kick, sending the ball far away from the target.

However, we aren’t able to shine and catch anything after that.

And since every single player had already gone up and taken a kick from the penalty spot, it was the turn of the keepers to do the same.

Oh, the dread. The dread.

With a tied score, neither team saw missing a goal opportunity as an option. This was do or die.

Piauí goes first. He seems confident. Concentrated on scoring and bringing Gold to his wretched pack, he runs towards the ball…in slow motion it seems…

I stand between the “posts” barely breathing, and without a second thought, I make the irrevocable decision to jump to my left…

…and to my surprise, my excessively lengthy salad fingers meet the ball, catching it brilliantly. My teammates explode with hope! The Gold may be ours after all!

But the war was not yet won. In order to conquer the ultimate glory, I would have to score the next penalty kick.

Oh, the dread. The dread.

I walk up to the penalty spot. Suddenly, I am no longer a keeper. I’m a full-fledged footballer. One that plays with his feet.

I have flashes of my terrible act of clownery earlier in the game. I can see my feet going up again, into the air, in my mind’s eyes.

I’m terribly ashamed, but simultaneously excited. This is my chance to redeem my broken spirit.

I look to my left, and Bruno is clapping his hands away, yelling “you can do it! you can do it” to me. I’m not sure if he means it, or if he just feels sorry for me.

Regardless, it feels damned good!

I look ahead and see Piauí’s absurdly large head in my way. He stands tall, probably not even shaken by his penalty miss just minutes ago…

I charge ahead towards the ball. Once again, the world slows down. I’m running in slow motion, and it is Goddamn beautiful.

The fans, including the dog, are dead quiet. This is my moment.

My monstrously colossal foot kicks away as if it belonged to the muscular legs of Roberto Carlos, and the ball flies en route to Piauí, hard (I’m just happy I hit the damned thing this time!)

The low shot goes towards the left side of Piauí’s “net”. He stretches himself to the utmost extent of his powers. But his desperate efforts are in vain.

His skinny fingers softly caress the ball in mid-air, but it charges on, slightly hitting the “post” (brick!)…and then going IN!

A goal!

GGGGggggoooOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooaoooAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaLLlllllllllllLLL…

I swear I could hear the entire Maracanã erupting in my ear.

I score the winning goal! I send the ball past Piauí! I am redeemed!

Bruno and my teammates run towards me, embracing me and hoisting me like a World Cup trophy!

I go from villain to hero, and it feels divine.

We are the Champions!

However, this being passionate Brazil, there were indeed post-match controversies we were forced to deal with – after all, this was an Olympic final!

Negão and his teammates complained that my ball hit the brick too hard and then went over it, instead of into the goal.

Complete bollocks. And they knew their excuses were silly fabrications as Piauí himself was dead quiet (probably still heartbroken!), since the brick barely shifted from its spot.

The final verdict concluded that I had, indeed, scored a goal. A beauty!

The winning goal! The Gold was ours!

Incidentally, the Brazilian Seleção failed to win Gold that Summer in Atlanta. And as of now, fifteen years later, an Olympic Gold medal in football is something they have yet to achieve.

My boys and I, on the other hand, have already had a taste of that glory.

RB.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2011 4:06 pm

    Lovely piece, Rod. I really, really enjoyed reading it! And where was that picture taken, exactly? It’s a stunning shot.

    • March 6, 2011 5:28 am

      Thank you so very much Suba! Truly appreciate that. That picture was taken at the place I used to live, in Campo Grande, from 1996 – 2000. It’s exactly where everything in my story happened. Right there. The shot is from 2000, the story happened there 4 years earlier.

      • March 8, 2011 4:41 pm

        I wish I could put into words why I love that shot so much… but I do, and it fits it in perfectly with your narrative.

  2. Sharenee permalink
    March 8, 2011 3:20 pm

    Rod this piece is hugely entertaining! I enjoyed it so much!
    Brava my friend!! 🙂

  3. April 3, 2011 12:01 pm

    Thank you for this great piece of content. Best Regards

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