Before leaving on a mission trip to Brazil recently, F.H. Gates told the Highland Heights Church of Christ he wasn’t going to watch the World Cup, but to pray for him and his wife, especially in case Brazil lost.
Only the Good Lord knew on that June 29 evening what was in store for the Beautiful Game and Brazil’s favorite team, its national team.
F.H. and his wife Becky, who lived in Brazil for 33 years, weren’t at the game but were in the country when the home team lost to Germany in the semifinal by the astonishing score of 7-1. In a tournament in which 1-0 qualifies as decisive, 7-1 caused mouths around the world to drop and hearts in Brazil to break.
If the Super Bowl has become an unofficial mid-winter holiday on a day in which most Americans are already off work, when Brazil’s national soccer [or futbol] team plays in the country, it’s a real holiday in South America’s largest nation.
“You had to close your business three hours before the game,” Gates told me Thursday. “When it is in Belo [Horizonte, where the Gates lived], it is five hours before. But [for the World Cup semifinals], they ended up closing the whole day.”
Growing up in northeast Ohio, Gates played the usual American sports [more on that further down], but he drank the Kool-Aid in Brazil and started following soccer like everyone else. He lived in the country for a year as a foreign-exchange student as a teenager in 1971. He and his wife settled in as missionaries in ’79 before moving back to Becky’s hometown in 2012.
He saw the great Pele play twice and is well versed in Brazil’s soccer history. Just like some NFL fans can name every Super Bowl winner or a baseball fan might be able to tell you how many World Series the New York Yankees have won, Gates can tell you Brazil still holds the record for most World Cups won with five and when they were won.
Just like the Super Bowl, World Cup tickets in Brazil are a scalper’s dream. His son-in-law bought a pair of $75 tickets and sold them for $800 apiece.
“Everybody got on him because he sold them cheap,” F.H. said.
He also knows that, just like in the USA, much of the general public doesn’t like to see public money going to the construction of sports stadia. He said Brazil spent $12 million on 12 soccer stadiums throughout the country. Never mind Rio de Janeiro will welcome the world in two years for the Summer Olympics, which means facilities for just about every sport imaginable will have to be constructed.
“They need schools and hospitals and roads,” Gates said. “People are tired of so much government corruption.”
F.H. grew up in Newcomerstown, Ohio. I told him he is that town’s third-most famous native son after he told me legendary pitcher Cy Young and football coach Woody Hayes went to the same high school he did about 30 miles south of Akron.
He played baseball and basketball at Kent State Community College. By that time, he had already spent his foreign-exchange year in Brazil where he picked up the game of soccer and played it at home with foreign students.
“I was a sports fanatic,” Gates told me of his youth. He once said from the Highland Heights pulpit, where the 59-year-old serves as family minister, that baseball was his idol growing up. “I knew all the batting averages.
“I went down there and I didn’t have a choice. There was no ESPN. I had to learn to like soccer, and that’s all they had all year long.”
If we place too much emphasis on sports in the U.S., what about down south, as in South America, or Europe for that matter, where riots aren’t uncommon among soccer fans of rival teams.
“In the soccer stadiums, the army or military police would have to divide the different sides,” Gates said. “Brazil can’t believe we can all be in the same stadium sitting next to each other.”
Gates said the old stadium in Belo Horizonte had a moat, not always filled with water, surrounding the pitch [field for us Americans] to keep fans away. Now there are fences or other barriers.
“They have all these fights outside the stadium, people getting killed,” he said, noting Bela Horizonte has two major teams whose fans do not like each other. The Yankees and the Red Sox are a lovefest in comparison. “If there were a game between the two major teams, you would be crazy to take your family.”
Which brings me back to the World Cup semifinal in which the barrage of German goals had the hometown fans looking on in horror. The third-place match, a 3-0 loss, was little better. The team’s coach has already resigned.
“It took them awhile to get over the shock,” Gates said of the semifinal. “They could understand losing 2-1, but 7-1? I don’t ever remember something that lopsided, especially with Brazil.
“It wasn’t lopsided during the play. It was the way it went. Everything [the Germans] shot went in. The first 10 minutes was normal play. It was 0-0 and Brazil was even playing a little better.”
Gates said Brazilians’ reaction to the loss wasn’t as bad as he expected, especially considering the rioting which ensued last year when Brazil won the Confederation Cup, a preliminary to the World Cup.
“They had really big riots,” Gates said of last year. “They broke every store window and car window.
“I really expected more this year because I heard all about the protests over those stadiums.”
It’s all in perspective. The U.S. team won only one match and tied another while soccer fans here were having watch parties in bars and restaurants like it was Super Bowl Sunday.
“[Brazil] is mourning and they got fourth place,” Gates said. “The U.S. got to the round of 16 and came home as national heroes.”
But F.H. doesn’t want people to think of Brazilians as just hooligans. The man with a perpetual smile on his face returns to his home away from home regularly. He and Becky have also entertained some of their old friends in their Lebanon home.
“Brazilians are the most loving and hospitable people and passionate,” he said. “They’re wonderful, beautiful people.”