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What Americans Can Learn From an Ex-Brazilian Soccer Player Turned Sportswriter

Americans are, for the most part, soccer neophytes who learn about the game from the English. Why don't they try and listen to the Brazilians for once?
Pelé scores in the 1958 World Cup final. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

When Americans start talking about soccer, or, as the rest of the world calls it, football, we tend to defer to the English for our knowledge. After all, they invented it, didn't they? Historians point out that people have been kicking balls around into goal-like areas for thousands of years in places that were formerly occupied by the British, like eastern China, but everyone knows that they codified the rules of the modern game. They even invented a name for it, soccer, which we Americans seem to be the last people to use. They also really love it. I've never seen an entire stadium full of American fans singing for their club during a freezing rainfall for the entire duration of a game as their team gets the living crap beaten out of it, but that type of thing happens all the time in England. Just ask a Queens Park Rangers fan.


But there are problems with trying to learn about soccer from reading English sports writers or talking to your English buddies, especially when it comes to the World Cup. One reason for this is that most English people you know, and a lot of English sportswriters, have never actually seen their team win a World Cup. England only won the World Cup once, in 1966, and it has never won a Euro Cup. This might lead that Liverpool fan you enjoy drinking with to say something like, "everyone knows that the Premier league is where the highest standard of football is played." My stepfather, a 70 year-old Geordie, actually watched England win the World Cup. I have never heard him say anything even vaguely resembling that.

The World Cup was invented in South America. The continent-wide national soccer tournament was also invented in South America. The continent-wide club championship, the Libertadores, was also invented in South America. Shouldn't Americans who want to learn about soccer try to familiarize themselves with what people in South America think about the sport, the tournaments, and, that highest tournament of all, the World Cup?

I am American. I may not even know how to kick a soccer ball very well. But I've lived nearly 20 years in Brazil. During this time I drank and cheered along with my Brazilian buddies as they made it through two victorious World Cup campaigns, in 1994 and 2002. I've gotten drunk with people who used to hang out with Garrincha, and I have several pals who used to play pro ball in Brazil and in Europe. I've stood in Maracana Stadium, fearing for my personal safety, in a crowd of 180,000 singing fans.


Tostão was a mid-fielder on the 1970 World Cup champion team. Legend has it that the coach didn't want him, but Pelé refused to play without him. A genius on the field, his career was cut short at the age of 26 when he nearly lost an eye in a freak accident on the pitch. He went back to school and became one of the best sports doctors in the country. After a decade he changed careers and became one of its best sports writers.

Tostão writes a lot about the concept of a player who he calls a "craque" (pronounced "crack"). A lot of players who other people might rank among the greatest of all times are not craques in Tostão's mind. Cafu, a key player on two World Cup champion teams, is not a craque, because he never knew how to "blindly curve a ball around a defender, onto the feet of a teammate while running full speed down the pitch."

Below the craque is the great club player. According to Tostão, the annals of soccer are full of great club players who could never rise beyond that level to that of the craque. Maradonna was a craque, because his game improved, Jordan-like, during international play. Batistuta, one of the great pure strikers in the history of the game, wasn't, because he disappeared during the World Cup. Kaká was a great club player, but he disappeared on the Seleção. He wasn't a craque. Romario was a craque because he made things happen. At 36, he scored 5 goals in the final game of the season to steal the golden boot from Carlinhos Tevez. That is the type of thing that a craque would do. A craque isn't necessarily tall, fast and athletic, but he has a quasi-magical ability to anticipate where the ball will go and place himself there beforehand. If something isn't working out, he will invent something else. After Brazil got knocked out of the Cup in 2006, Tostão announced that the country was entering a new phase. For the first time in as long as he could remember, Brazil no longer had the best individual players in the World. Worse, he said, there were no new craques coming on the horizon. A running joke in Brazil during the 2010 was, "Be like (Seleção coach) Dunga. Say no to craque."

What about today? Could Neymar become a craque? What about Oscar or Thiago Silva? There are some people in Brazil who would argue that even the so-called best players in the world like Messi haven't risen to the level of craque yet because of their underachievement in the Cup.

What about the newcomers? Will a new Hagi rise from Eastern Europe? Will a new Drogba appear out of West Africa?

Four weeks from now, we will know.

Brian Mier is an American ex-pat who lives in Rio. He is the author of Slow Ride. His previous work for Vice can be viewed here.