Antonio Carlos Ferreira Lopes (pronounced Lopez), 39, one of Brazil's premier soccer coaches, trotted around an AstroTurf practice field at Berkeley one recent afternoon, leading the University of California squad through a typical South American warmup drill that resembled some kind of flap-armed double-time U.S. Army exercise. Coming up beside one of the tall, blond, healthy, gently awkward and unabashedly American college players. Lopes began performing a flowing samba of movements to the beat of an imaginary drum. The boy's face tightened in skeptical disbelief as Lopes gestured to him to join in the dance. And that, according to Lopes and some of his fellow world-class coaches from the land that gave you both Pel� and the coffee price hike, is exactly the problem with the U.S. soccer movement, from the 8-year-olds in the youth leagues through the college ranks.
"They lack rhythm," complained Lopes in his daily improving English. "These boys are big and tough and smart, but they do not have the grace, the touch, the tick-tick-tick of good soccer. But it will come. We have been doing this for 50 years in Brazil, and now we are giving it to you." He gestured, as if handing over an imaginary present, and a grin split his wide, expressive face.
Lopes and 20 of his fellow coaches were in this country participating in a two-week series of intensive soccer clinics, visiting in pairs such soccer hot spots as St. Louis, Washington, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area. The program has been blessed by the powerful CBD—the Brazilian Sports Confederation—and coordinated by Partners of the Americas, a non-profit volunteer service organization based in Washington, which arranges cultural, economic, medical and agricultural exchanges between South America and the U.S. as well as providing sports programs.
In one sense, the presence of so many high-powered Brazilian coaches constitutes a classic case of technical overkill, the equivalent of our sending John Madden, Bud Grant, Tom Landry, Don Shula and half a dozen other top NFL coaches to Brazil to teach football in the Papi Warner League.
Take Lopes, for instance. He has coached several Brazilian first-division teams, including the country's most popular side, Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro. He teaches soccer and physical education at a university, a high school and an elementary school. When he says something about soccer it makes headlines across the country, and his salary would put several NFL coaches in economy class.
Yet there he was last week in California, patiently explaining to American kids something every Brazilian boy of six knows: "To stop the ball dead, you don't put your foot down hard right on top of it. You do it lightly, and a little bit to the rear. That way you don't get unbalanced."
Across the field was Gildo Rodrigues, 37, a slender man with a Zapata mustache, who coached Rio's Olaria Athletic Club to first-division status, knocking off Pel�'s former team, Santos, in the process. Rodrigues ran lightly, practicing simple dribbling with the collegians, gently correcting. In all, the Partners of the Americas estimate that some 200,000 youthful Americans saw these coaches personally, or were influenced by them through the clinics the Brazilians ran for soccer coaches.
Standing on the sideline, watching with keen interest, was Julius Menendez, the 1976 U.S. Olympic soccer coach. "The clinics are the key to this exchange," he said. "The fundamentals of the game must be taught to kids early on, and by reliable, well-trained people. Otherwise you get another Little League, with a lot of hysterical parents. If we are ever going to fill the North American Soccer League with American kids instead of players imported from England and South America, then we must reach them very young. If a kid hasn't seen a soccer ball by the time he's 10, he's just going to stand there like an iron deer on the front lawn."
Lopes and Rodrigues have a program they believe will work here and eventually enable their laggardly northern neighbor to become a serious competitor at the international level.
"The little ones, six to 11, let them just play!" said Rodrigues, sweeping his arms around as if giving away free World Cup tickets. "They don't need rules or even techniques. They need a ball, a goal and they must play every day. It is the world's greatest game, a true pleasure. Let them enjoy it before they grow-up and get serious.