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Jun 1, 2008

Wake Forest experiences Joga Bonito

The Brazilian teenager introduced himself to Wake Forest striker Marcus Tracy as 'Iuri' in a local cafeteria. Like Tracy and his teammates, Iuri, was in Santa Filomena, Brazil to play Futebol.

For Wake Forest, the defending NCAA Division I men's soccer national champions, the team's tour of Brazil in mid-May served as the trip of a lifetime. For Iuri, a 16-year-old from the streets of Sao Paulo, his visit to Santa Filomena could change his life forever.

Tracy befriended Iuri, 16, in Santa Filomena for a tryout with popular Brazilian pro club Palmeiras. Making the team might set up Iuri and his family for life. Missing the cut would send the wide-eyed boy back to the ghetto, called favelas in Brazil, where tiny homes are often held together by garbage.

"[Iuri] wasn't in school or anything, and if he didn't make the team, he would just have to go home and figure out how to make it in life," Tracy says. "It's just weird to see someone [in Brazil] making millions and see another person on the side of the road with no house. It was surprising and I think that's what made the trip special for us.

"We just thought we were going down there to play soccer," he said.

Oh, yes, Wake Forest, which defeated Ohio State 2-1 to win the College Cup last December, played soccer. The hard-charging Demon Deacons scored one for the game in America during its challenging 10-day tour with a 1-2-1 record, which is not too bad when you consider it was against some of Brazil's best.

Of course, back home in Winston-Salem, Tracy and his teammates are still talking about their hard-fought 4-3 loss to the Brazilian Under-20 national team -- a team filled with the country's future stars.

Looking back on their trip, the Demon Deacons were proud of a 3-1 win over UniSanta, one of Brazil's top University teams, to open the trip. And sure, a 4-1 loss to Santos Futebol Club was humbling, but Santos produced Edison Arantes do Nascimento: Known to most of the world as Pele. After the game the Demon Deacons even visited his old locker. Wake Forest also played to a 2-2 draw with Sao Paulo Futebol Club.

Still, the Demon Deacons won't ever forget Iuri, who ended up working out with them a few times. Or their bus driver, Jose, himself dirt poor, but always smiling and laughing. He even jumped into goal during one Wake Forest practice and made some stops. And how could they forget the kids lined up on dirt streets, some without shoes, kicking a soccer ball around from sunrise to dusk?

"People on the team left Brazil with a feeling of gratitude for everything we have," Wake Forest midfielder Sam Cronin says. "It made us realize what a great spot we are all in. I think it was a shocker to see a lot of poor kids we played, who worked that much harder, who took their game that much seriously. You realize how much soccer means to them. They either make it and make a lot of money, have a great life, or they go back home to poverty."

During the trip the team also visited a school for disadvantaged children in Sao Paulo where they donated soccer gear and school supplies.

Back on the pitch, powerful Wake Forest, which went 22-2-2 last season, had to earn respect against the Brazilian teams, especially at the beginning of their matches. Most of the teams didn't even start warming up until five minutes before the game started and Santos' coach Emerson Leao even bantered on his cell phone for the first five minutes of their showdown. That bothered the Demon Deacons.

"Then it was like, jeez, we have a game here," Wake Forest coach Jay Vidovich says. "The cell phone went away. I think we opened some eyes over there and received some positive feedback. Yes, going into it we were just America, but their coaches started asking me about my impressions of their team."

Vidovich's charges learned the Brazilian game -- full of finesse and fire -- on the fly. They also realized that referees over there call tight games. The normal pushing and shoving allowed in NCAA games don't go over in Brazil.

And the Brazilians are seemingly always attacking. They play the beautiful game with speed and wonderful technical skills, and give them an opening and the ball is blasted in the back of the net.

"I can't remember a kid losing the ball off the dribble the entire time we were there," Tracy says.

"In American soccer, especially youth soccer, you can get away with not defending the right way," Cronin said. "When you play against players like in Brazil for 90 minutes, you have to do things properly, or you are really going to get exposed. They will make you look silly."

Vidovich has talked in passing about a Brazilian soccer adventure with Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman over the past two years. The idea gained momentum after the big win over Ohio State. According to Vidovich, boosters raised about $75,000 to send the champs to Brazil from May 9 through May 19 -- visiting the cities of Sao Paulo, Rio De Janeiro and Santa Filomena -- playing and sightseeing.

Vidovich's first introduction to soccer came back in 1970 when his parents moved to Sao Paulo from Detroit. He was 10. Vidovich's father, John, worked for Ford Motor Company, accepting a job transfer there.

It was a great time for soccer in the country. The front line of Pele, Jairzinho and Tostao, Brazil's best team in its storied history, led the side to a World Cup win. And Vidovich quickly picked up the game.

Actually, he fell in love with it.

Just like the Brazilian kids in his neighborhood, he played the game day and night. Then Vidovich's left Sao Paulo in 1974 and last week marked only 'Coach Jay's' second trip back to the country. He took his players to stadiums like Morumbi and Pacaembu, where he learned some of the nuances of soccer from passionate fans, for a Brazil Serie A game between Corinthians and Clube de Regatas Brasil. They also caught a Serie B match-up with Sao Paulo FC and Gremio.

"I think the players just found the culture of Brazil amazing," Vidovich says. "Any space of land that was yards was 15 yards by 10, at least, there could be a soccer field on it. Just the immense passion for the game. They just had so many different experiences."

As for Wake Forest's next trip to Brazil, Vidovich says: "For me, it might be next week. I'm still in love with the place. But NCAA rules say you can only make a trip like that every four years. I wish I could take every team there."

Justin Rodriguez covers the USL for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at jrod_showtime@yahoo.com.

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