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Original Issue

Instilling tick-tick

Gildo Rodrigues and other Brazilian coaches give a crash course in the U.S.

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 Pelé 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 Pelé'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.

"From 11 to 16 is the time to teach rules and fundamentals. Serious coaching, but always playing. Just the way American boys learn basketball: dribble, set, shoot. Games every day after school on the playground, that is the way kids learn soccer, too. Over and over and over. Above 16 is the time for tactical talk and strategy; only then does the coach bring out the chalkboard."

Rodrigues and Lopes became very suspicious of the American coaches' penchant for the chalk-talk. "We were giving a clinic in Santa Clara a few days ago, and there was a coach using a blackboard with a team of young girls," said Rodrigues. "Oh my, the board was covered with dotted lines and arrows and circles and Xs and numbers. I didn't even know what it was. Too much of that is no good. Just play."

Of the hundreds of youth soccer coaches in the U.S., most have played or been trained in either the English or the European style of soccer, which stress an aggressive, physical and team-play concept, clearly different from the Brazilian and South American style where the emphasis is on individuality, rhythm, grace and short-passing brilliance.

And so the Brazilian coaches, like a warm breeze from Ipanema, advocated the system—or lack of it—that produced a Pelé. "I think the kids are getting confused by this," said Rodrigues. "I see them looking over at their coaches to see if it is all right for them to abandon for a moment all their serious training."

At a youth session in suburban Piedmont, a fashionable community of big homes and gleaming Mercedeses, Rodrigues' face lit with delight when he observed an 8-year-old, redheaded, freckle-faced boy moving the ball with a sure—if rough—touch down the field. He ran to embrace the lad. "You are American?" he asked.

"Yep," said the kid, "but my mom and dad are Scottish." This sent the emotional Brazilian into a tailspin. "Oh, I didn't know," he said. "He's Scottish, and they are great soccer players. Maybe soccer is in the blood. Perhaps one can't learn the game. Maybe America will never have great soccer!"

Lopes, on the other hand, was cautiously optimistic. "One must think here of the politics," he said, referring to the fact that U.S. businesses with South American interests, such as Coca-Cola, have helped fund the exchange operation. "We are here really for the betterment of soccer. We are here to say to Coca-Cola, 'See, the great Brazilian soccer coaches believe in the U.S. development of the game. Keep putting your money into it. It is valuable, and both soccer and you will reap the benefits.' "

In the meantime, as Rodrigues said, "There is joy," and after a hard day teaching on the soccer fields, Lopes and Rodrigues took off for Sneaky Pete's, a San Francisco disco, to samba and bossa nova until the early hours, carrying with them the rhythm and grace of Brazilian soccer. Promising to return next year, Rodrigues said, "Someday I dream that the U.S. and Brazil could meet in a World Cup game. That would be a great joy. I will hold that thought."