Two games of considerable significance to fans of the U.S. men’s soccer team transpired on Tuesday evening. In Columbus, Ohio, the U.S. beat Mexico, 2-0, and in Honduras, the hosts played Panama to a 2-2 draw. As a result, the U.S. men have assured themselves playing time next summer when the planet’s most accomplished teams will convene in Brazil to battle for the World Cup.
On the same night in Foxborough, Mass., the host team for that grand event took on Portugal in a match without World Cup implications, though on the day before the game, Brazil’s head coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, was having none of that.
“For us, for the Brazilians, we don’t have official games, but we could face Portugal in the World Cup, so we have to play as if we might,” he said. “I have five more games to define how we’ll play in the World Cup. Every game for us is important, and the game against Portugal has to be looked at that way.”
When Scolari’s team took the field to practice on Monday afternoon, there was no doubt whom the young fans in the stands wearing Brazil shirts had come to see.
It’s like your big brother playing against your little brother, except little brother has five World Cups and big brother has no World Cups.
“Soccer is my life, and we’re away from my country for such a long time, and every time they come here we have to come and appreciate the team and root for them,” said Renata Jordeao, who, accompanied by two young nephews, had driven to the stadium from her home on Cape Cod. “Everywhere they go that we can go, and we can make it, we go. It doesn’t matter how much.”
Like Renata Jordeao, Joao Jardin was frustrated that he couldn’t get into the stadium to watch the practice, but he, too, had tickets for the game itself.
“It’s a big thing for us. I have a three-year-old, and he loves soccer already, and he’s gonna be excited, you know what I mean?”
On the following evening, as game time approached, lots of fans of both Brazil and Portugal took advantage of the special train running from South Station in Boston to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. Arthur Alves had arrived in Boston from Rochester, N.Y. with a keen appreciation for the matchup he was about to witness.
“I think it makes it intense for the fact that Portugal is a very good team,” he said. “And, you know, they have great players. Even though they’ve never won a World Cup, they’re still one of the top teams in the world. But at the same time, it does bring a friendly atmosphere, because it’s Portugal, and the Portuguese and Brazilians do get along. It’s not as if it’s Brazil-Argentina, where they going to throw rocks at each other and stuff like that. So I think it’s going to be a nice atmosphere.”
Nearby, Larissa Alszegi, a Brazilian, who’d driven 10 hours overnight from Toronto to see the game, was not so sure about that atmosphere.
“Yes, one of our best friends sitting beside me is Portuguese and he has a pretty big mouth, so for once we can settle it on the field, and then hopefully we’ll still be friends after,” she said.
Larissa Alszegi, Arthur Alves, and the rest of crowd of 62,000 on hand for the game got some added value. Portugal’s former superstar Eusébio, designated his country’s greatest player over the past 50 years, was on hand, as was another fellow familiar even to people who don’t know a goal kick from an off-sides trap: the great Pelé.
Friendship prevailed in this particular friendly. Portugal scored first, which constituted either an amiable gesture on the part of Brazil or, more likely, a wake-up call, since Brazil scored the next three goals. In the press box, ESPN International producer Raul Fernandes mused on some of the subplots he and his colleagues might explore in telling the tale of the contest.
“You’re talking about old country vs. new country,” he said. “Obviously the history. Portugal. Discovery. It’s like your big brother playing against your little brother, except little brother has five World Cups and big brother has no World Cups.
Alleged “little brother” Brazil eventually prevailed, 3-1.
Portugal will next play a game that counts when they host Israel in a qualifier in Lisbon on Oct. 11. Brazil, triumphant once again, will continue to enjoy a relatively tension-free run-up to the World Cup they will host next summer.