Growing up Portuguese, the love of the Beautiful Game was something that felt so intrinsic to my very existence. The only girl among grown men and my older male cousins, I joined pickup soccer games narrated only by the sounds of Portuguese male voices; the phrases “passa aqui” and “méto no baliza,” strung in between swear words and guttural sounds that I had only ever heard from the mouths of Portuguese people —
before my mom called me in to pray the rosary inside the house of someone I didn’t know in an always-overcrowded, blistering-hot room adorned in white polyester cloth and featuring the silver Holy Ghost crown. Sometimes, the game went on without me — the boys allowed to keep playing, as I stood among older women fanning themselves with the pages of prayers, hoping the game would continue after the prayers wrapped up and the sky darkened. Most times, the game didn’t continue.
It was then time to eat under a white tent, serving yourself following the buffet line where foldable tables were so filled with all the food everyone brought to the house that you sometimes wondered when the table would collapse. There was so much food that everyone could easily have had three additional servings apiece. I inhaled the large, crunchy-on-the-outside, but gooey-on-the-inside suspiros – meringues so loaded with sugar – that it is no wonder why my parents never enforced the American “no-soda-for-kids” rule. It would have been pointless given just how many of those things I could make disappear, washing it all down with pineapple soda poured from the glass Empire bottle in the middle of each table in the row of other foldable tables in which everyone congregated to eat.
In America, everyone has this vision of the culturally-white soccer scene. And it’s true, there are definitely some white people out there with minivans, dragging a cooler of orange slices to perfectly lined and cut soccer fields. But my experiences were different. Many of my teams primarily featured immigrants’ kids. We weren’t disconnected from the roots of Portuguese and Brazilian-Portuguese soccer.
The most American thing about my soccer journey might be that I began playing in baseball cleats.
My mother took a knife to slice the extra studs of my cousin’s old baseball cleats and handed me the pair that became my first pair of soccer cleats. I had to smile watching the film Goal! The Dream Begins, when the Mexican-American immigrant uses cardboard as shin guards. It is such a microcosm of a deep and meaningful passion for soccer that just somehow isn’t as visible in American culture. The black leather of the baseball cleats were worn out and broken in, but it didn’t matter to me. I loved (and still love) the game.
I grew up playing soccer in an old, run-down mill city, a Portuguese enclave that, though often forgotten and neglected in the collective American soccer consciousness, was one of the first real hotbeds of American soccer.
The Fall River Marksmen were the dominant team during what is sometimes referred to as the “Golden Era” of U.S. Soccer. The American Soccer League (and later the Atlantic Coast League) team regularly recruited Scottish players, but two of its most notable players grew up in Fall River: Bert Patenaude and “Billy” Gonsalves. Yes, it’s true, the game didn’t start in this country with the speedy, technically-limited Landon Donovan.
Before the days of Jurgen Klinsmann (the former U.S. Men’s National Team “USMNT” manager heavily criticized by many in the American soccer community, including the seemingly-otherwise-forward-thinking U.S. Women’s National Team striker Abby Wambach, for his squad selections featuring dual-national players), the USMNT competed in the inaugural World Cup in 1930, with a roster comprised of five Scotland-born players, one England-born player, and 10 players, (including Patenaude and Gonsalves) born in the United States.
As an aside, the narrative surrounding Klinsmann was that the German-born coach favored “foreign guys,” but in its entire history at World Cups, the USMNT has had 31 players, who were born outside the United States, enter a World Cup game. Only three of these players played under Jurgen Klinsmann.
Born in Fall River to Canadian-American immigrants, Bert Patenaude scored the first hat-trick in World Cup history, leading the USMNT to their best-ever (to the present day) finish at the World Cup, placing third. Netting four goals, Patenaude placed third among the tournament’s goalscorers (an award later dubbed the “Bronze Shoe,” then the “Bronze Boot”), garnering his placement on the inaugural tournament’s All-Star Team.
Adelino “Billy” Gonsalves, the son of Madeiran immigrants, was a player who made those around him better and, as such, was a perennial winner at nearly every level and featured on the 1930 and 1934 USMNT World Cup Squads. Despite the average modern American soccer fan not knowing his name, he earned the nickname “the Babe Ruth of American Soccer” for his powerful, driven shot, excellent ball control, deft passing ability, crafty skills, flair, and soaring headers. Gonsalves’ parents had lived in the United States just two years before he was born in Rhode Island.
Based in Fall River, Ponta Delgada Soccer Club a/k/a Fall River Ponta Delgada was a team formed by the city’s Azorean community that became one of the most successful amateur teams in the United States. After 1934, the next time the USMNT entered international football’s biggest tournament was in 1950. Three players from Ponta Delgada S.C. were named to the USMNT 1950 World Cup roster: Frank Moniz, Ed Souza-Neto, and John “Clarkie” Souza-Benavides.
Three years before the 1950 World Cup, Ponta Delgada S.C. was selected to represent the United States at the inaugural North American Soccer Championship where the team faced off against Mexico and Cuba. I would imagine that even the most staunch modern supporters of the USMNT, card-carrying members of the “American Outlaws,” who tune in for every CONCACAF matchup, might be surprised to know that a team named after an Azorean city played as the USMNT.
Souza-Neto and Souza-Benavides (both Portuguese players also born in Fall River) featured in the United States’ historic 1-nil victory over England at the 1950 World Cup and represented the USMNT at the 1948 Summer Olympics.
The son of Azorean parents, Souza-Benavides was reportedly selected to the 1950 World Cup All-Star Team, a feat that would not be seen by a USMNT player again until Claudio “Captain America” Reyna in 2002 — and since then has not been achieved.
It’s funny how Claudio Reyna, born to a Portuguese mother named Maria Silva, is almost never spoken about as being Portuguese, but his son, Giovanni Reyna (born in the United Kingdom and currently learning his trade with Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga) has been embraced as America’s hottest upcoming soccer star, but I digress…
Souza-Benavides was described as a “playmaker,” “ball-control artist,” “the only man on the team with the foot touch to challenge the Brits,” and “probably the best [the USMNT] ever produced.” His name was spelled “Sousa” on his birth certificate and “Souza” on his marriage certificate, according to the legend’s 2012 obituary published by the Herald News. Take a second to appreciate how Portuguese that is.
And then take a moment to consider the nicknames: “Clarkie” and “Billy”— culturally-white-sounding names that undoubtedly eradicate all traces of Portuguese roots.
Still, did that erasure of Souza-Benavides’ background and upbringing bring him success or fame? After his team upset England, he returned home to the United States with “zero fanfare” and went “back to his factory job at Bristol Knitting Mills.” In some ways, it might be the most Portuguese-American story ever told.
In the early days of my soccer life in Fall River, our competitive travel team roster was filled with names like Tavares, Correia, Andrade, Mello, Soares, Simao, and, of course, Faria. Our home field was behind a police station and an old factory in the “Mill City.” It had so many divots that our coaches would use a squeegee to flatten the surface after it rained.
In elementary school, I battled and played alongside the Portuguese boys (and a few Portuguese girls) with nerf soccer balls so worn out that the ball was misshaped and entirely stripped of neon color) on the asphalt “playground” (i.e. a sloping lot filled with cracks so deep you had to account for it when dribbling), using rusted fence posts as goals at our Portuguese-Catholic school.
At our Avos house, my cousins and I played soccer with whatever we could find. I remember kicking around a flat, adult-size basketball playing with one goal as the chain-link fence posts and the other, the posts holding up the grape vine. I quickly learned how to keep the ball down after my grandfather waved his bengala (cane), berating us for hitting his fruit tree that was smack-dab in the middle of the “field” that was his sloped backyard in which he had dug large, deep divots to assist with drainage.
Around that same time, I was one of two girls on O’Gil’s: a Portuguese boys indoor soccer team that competed in New Bedford, Mass. – a sister city to cities in the Azores, Portugal, Madeira, and Cape Verde. On O’Gil’s, I played alongside three Portuguese-American guys (all of whom were related to each other), including a slightly-older-than-me Portuguese-American boy named Andrew Sousa, who would later go on to star at Providence College, then make his professional debut with the New England Revolution.
The tagline for my first premier team (Nor’Easter) was “O Jogo Bonito.” We trained at Pavao field where, in those days, the grass came up to our knees.
The team I spent the most years playing with – my second premier team (Southeastern United) had players hailing from all over Southeastern New England, but primarily concentrated in Dighton-Rehoboth, Dartmouth, Fall River, and Swansea-Somerset. It was nothing like the popular image of American soccer.
Our team’s sideline featured: one of the kindest Portuguese mothers on earth “Cidalia,” who would wave a blanket after every game we won; a reverend father named “Oommen” hailing from India, whose trademark cheer was “keep up the pressure” in the deepest, most motivational cadence one can imagine; and a truly hilarious, sharp-witted, quick-tongued Spanish-speaking mom I have only known as “Mrs. Braga,” alongside at least one Portuguese dad (Mr. Ponte or Mr. DeMelo), who was listening to the Benfica, Sporting, or Porto game on a handheld radio.
The most common compliment that sideline bestowed on me for my play was my “genica,” which, growing up Portuguese American, was perhaps the greatest compliment I could have ever received. I was never the fastest or the tallest; my vertical jump range was minimal and my left foot non-existent, but I always played with heart. It was an ethos of never-say-die and will-not-be-denied that was fostered by my coaches, but also lived inside my nerve endings, the blood coursing through my veins.
We learned under Coach “Harry” DeCastro, an old-school Portuguese coach and former Luso American Soccer Association (LASA) Senior Division Champion who had been inducted into the New England Hall of Fame.
We did pay to play, but, as the Southeastern United club had mostly dissolved with the exception of our team, Coach DeCastro and his wife (who handled the money side) never charged parents more than what was necessary to enter competition. It was a grave departure from all the other clubs in the surrounding areas and especially the resource-laden, culturally-white clubs we played against hours away in Western Massachusetts.
As I got older, I saved up the money I had received from my big Portuguese family for birthdays and Christmases, along with the money I made helping my dad clean offices and a salon, to sign up for week-long soccer camps in Rhode Island with some of the best coaches in the area (who just happened to hail from the old country): Estacio “Stacey” DeCastro (the brother of my club coach) and Mario Perreira – both legendary attacking players in their own right, who have been credited with coaching and cultivating talents like former USMNT star Geoff Cameron and Major League Soccer standout Michael Parkhurst. Their camps never had flashy bells and whistles; these were old-school strikers, whose training philosophy focused on maximizing players’ time for touches on the ball. It was a simple game – you and the ball.
In the summer before high school, my brother’s Brazilian soccer coach William “Bill” Sampaio slipped my name to the Shooting Stars – a futsal team that featured three Portuguese-American starters (all of whom were blood cousins) for the five-a-side game and perhaps just as many unofficial Portuguese coaches (i.e. their dads, who knew futebol inside and out).
After one training session, the Shooting Stars players welcomed me to the team with open arms. I played just about equal minutes in a 3-person rotation for the defensive pair (in every minute of every game the defensive set featured two Portuguese-American defenders and the Portuguese-American goalkeeper) and ended up earning a gold medal with the Hudson girls I began to consider cousins as a 14-year-old playing up in the Under-16 level at the National Futsal Championships in Anaheim, California.
When my mother came to Fall River, Mass. with her family in the 1970s (part of what has been called “the last big wave of Portuguese immigration” to the United States), her family was ridiculed for and discouraged from playing soccer, so as to hide that they were “fresh off the boat” (which, of course, was a 747 Panam flight; not everyone came on the Mayflower or through Ellis Island). Her extended family that had arrived sometime earlier outwardly discouraged them from playing futebol, instructing them to play baseball as a means of fitting in.
American popular culture has centered the rarely-told American immigrant soccer story as almost exclusively Mexican American, which, of course, does not reflect the history of the USMNT (e.g. one of the most talented USMNT players in the modern-era was Tabaré “Tab” Ramos – an immigrant from Uruguay who grew up playing in Harrison, N.J., coincidentally less than 10 minutes from “The Ironbound” – a neighborhood famous for its Portuguese influence).
Let me be clear: I harbor no desire to pit the Mexican-American experience against that of Portuguese Americans. I use the two as a comparison illustrating the ways in which we can learn from how Mexican Americans have carved out space for their culture within the larger American soccer landscape.
After all, in many ways, it has been only through the telling of Mexican-American stories that I felt somewhat understood by mainstream America (e.g. Selena, Spanglish, and Cristela).
Recall the infamous words of the film Selena (a biopic of the famous Mexican-American pop singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez starring Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez): “We got to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time – it’s exhausting.” That resonated with me – I didn’t speak Portuguese well enough among Portuguese natives, yet in culturally-white circles there always seemed an unspoken pressure to either hide or disassociate with my heritage as a way to be accepted.
The only time I’ve seen Portuguese Americans “represented” in popular culture was in the movie Mystic Pizza where Julia Roberts (whose ethnic heritage is described as English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, German, and Swedish) plays a working-class Portuguese girl named Daisy Araujo, famously delivering the line, “Bring home your poor Portagee girlfriend, shake up the family a little.”
A quick side note: Other times I felt a deep sense of cultural connection in pop culture film was via “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Fiddler on the Roof”; the former centered the experiences of Greek-Orthodoxy, the latter that of poor Russian Jews. This is kind of peculiar to think about given that I didn’t know one person who identified as Greek or Russian or had ever stepped foot in any temple or really any church that wasn’t Catholic before watching either of those films.
I wonder how much our own culture is complicit in the lack of visibility of Portuguese-American soccer. Do we just not tell our holistic stories enough in America? Or in a way that other Americans can grasp? I’m going to do my best to change that.
Why were some in our families seemingly dead-set on passing as Americans? I suppose it’s hard to judge them. I can’t imagine what it must be like to just start over completely in a new country where even your knowledge of the language, if you even know it, is limited. And was it, in part, because some of their pale complexions (perhaps unlike many Mexican-American immigrants) could allow for such passing? I suppose many of them didn’t have to worry their racial dimension (among their complicated identity matrix (i.e. poor, immigrant, etc.)) would serve as an intersecting basis of discrimination.
Maybe they figured all they had to do was be quiet, put their head down, work hard, and earn enough money to buy clothes or fabric that didn’t signal “working class” and maybe they would find the ever-elusive American dream. Perhaps the immigrants from the island — who somehow literally didn’t know how to swim — weren’t trying to make waves in America.
Still, that’s speculation. One thing I do know is that if you want to watch Liga MX coverage, you can turn on ESPN Deportes or flip to ESPN FC and catch Sebastian Salazar or Herculez Gomez comparing MLS to Liga MX, chatting about Mexican soccer stars Carlos Vela and Javier Hernández Balcázar a/k/a “Chicharito Hernández.” If you want to watch Benfica or Sporting, you’re either paying for a subscription service or watching the games in Portuguese on RTP. Want to hear about how critics rate the play of Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha a/k/a “Nani” and Joao Filipe Iria Santos Moutinho a/k/a Joao Moutinho in the MLS? You’ll have to turn to O Jornal for that.
It’s sort of interesting to think about how one culture may have been complicit in rendering it invisible, while another perhaps did not have that privilege to “pass” as Americans (and thus, “assimilate” earlier) and yet the former has been written out and the latter has since become a prominent part of mainstream American soccer consciousness, even if it still exists on the fringes in some real ways.
For me, the Mexican-American influence on soccer in the United States was obvious as a child. Several members of my large Portuguese family and I traveled to Foxboro to watch Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution take on Chivas USA. At the time, I thought Chivas USA was a team based in Mexico (rather than California) given the sheer numbers of Mexican fan gear in the stadium.
Despite the proximity, geographical border, and that the number of Portuguese Americans likely pales in comparison to that of Mexican Americans, it seems we should be taking a page out of the playbook of Mexican Americans because American media views Mexican soccer as marketable in the United States, whereas Portuguese soccer is not.
Cristiano Ronaldo is arguably the most popular athlete on the planet, but if you asked most Americans, they wouldn’t be able to tell you that he hails from the island of Madeira, let alone be able to point to the island on a map.
Of course, we can hear popular news networks talk about Cristiano Ronaldo or Bruno Fernandes, but it is only after they hit the market in another country’s league. Do you remember ever hearing about Ronaldo or Fernandes on ESPN FC when they rocked a Sporting jersey or was it only after transfer rumors circled?
Next time you’re listening to CR7’s origin story, consider the source, then watch out for a narrative that goes something like “he was a typical Portuguese player, dove a lot, did a million stepovers that had no end product, then he went to Manchester United where Coach Sir Alex Ferguson taught him how to become a professional” — as though Cristiano, playing in the No. 28 Sporting jersey hadn’t dribbled by and around half of Manchester’s starting lineup (coached by Ferguson) when the two sides faced off in a friendly.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi (to whom Ronaldo is often compared) is described as “a natural,” whereas Ronaldo is someone who had to work (and thus, be taught) to play that well.
It will be interesting to see how Bruno Fernandes’ story will be manipulated to serve a British-American standpoint if the “Portuguese Magnifico” continues on his current trajectory.
Similarly, American soccer media seems to take great pleasure in criticizing Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho — one of only two persons in the modern era to win a Champions League title with a Portuguese club team. Mourinho is also one of only five managers in the history of soccer to win the Champions League title with two clubs — and he did it with Porto and Inter Milan (the latter the only Italian team to ever win the Treble). And yet he is criticized for promoting “boring” soccer — the same criticism lodged at Portuguese Men’s National Team Manager Fernando Santos after his squad took home the gold at Euro 2016 without Cristiano Ronaldo playing for much of the final match.
To examine the American narratives surrounding Portuguese soccer is to dissect hypocrisy and contradiction. Portuguese players have creative footskills, but Portuguese coaches lack creativity. Portuguese players are flashy, but prone to diving and lacking in substance (unless, of course, they train under a Scottish coach in the English Premier League). And finally, Portuguese coaches lack flair, but when the same sort of defensive tactics they employ are implemented by American coaches (to less effectiveness), the narrative surrounds a “winning mentality.”
When the FIFA Men’s World Cup rolls around, people often criticize Portuguese Americans for rooting for the country where their parents were born. And I can’t help but feel some type of way. American soccer coaches put me on a local “B” team because I lived in the poorer neighborhood, but Portuguese coaches had me starting every game in premier leagues. Growing up, I idolized Joao Pinto, Luis Figo, and Simao Sabrosa. Yes, I was a fan of then-underrated (back in the day, everyone had an obsession with the incredibly good-looking, always-offside Taylor Twellman) Clint Dempsey, the New England Revolution midfielder, but the only American soccer player I idolized was Mia Hamm.
I talked to fellow Portuguese-American classmates about Benfica vs. Sporting vs. Porto when we were in kindergarten. I begged my mom to let me wear my first Benfica jersey for my fifth grade school picture.
I translated in Portuguese for Brazilian coaches at the TetraBrazil soccer camp. Some of my coaches called me by my last name (pronouncing it in Portuguese, which was music to my ears), some (who weren’t Portuguese) called me by the nickname Chourico.
In high school, when I wasn’t practicing Simao Sabrosa’s trademark stutter-step penalty kick, I was silently praying that what the physical therapist told me would be true: my rehab and training would land me a spot on the Portuguese Women’s National Team.
I’ve seen how the Portuguese Men’s National Team (and its fans) embrace(s) players all over the world (not just those within the strict borders of its mainland), showing their unwavering support for the Azorean-born Pedro Miguel Carreiro Resendes a/k/a “Pauleta,” Brazilian-born players Kepler Laveran de Lima Ferreira a/k/a “Pepe” and Anderson Luis de Souza a/k/a “Deco,” French-born Raphael Guerreiro, and Madeiran-born Cristiano Ronaldo — to say nothing about how Portuguese soccer fans glorify the beloved, legend Mozambican-born Eusebio da Silva Ferreira and never cheered harder in my lifetime than when Bissau-Guinean Ederzito Antonio Macedo Lopes a/k/a “Eder” netted the goal that secured Portugal’s first-ever European championship. On the flip side, I’ve seen how the dominant American soccer culture, through legacy media, players, and fans, maligned a coach for selecting German-born players, whose fathers served in the U.S. military – namely Jermaine Jones, John Brooks, Timothy Chandler, and Fabian Johnson, to the USMNT. And it didn’t escape me that these players did not share the complexion of Landon Donovan or Michael Bradley.
My favorite memories of watching soccer are all linked to Portuguese teams: the time Benfica played at Pierce Field in East Providence, R.I.; the time nearly fifty persons huddled outside around a 10-inch television during my cousin’s graduation party to watch Portugal take on the Netherlands (i.e. “the Battle of Nuremberg” game); the time my brother and I were jumping on couches when an underdog Portugal side defeated England’s “Golden Generation” in penalty kicks; and, of course, most recently, the 2016 European Championship.
So many people in this country don’t care about soccer unless the USMNT qualifies for the World Cup, yet seemingly feel entitled to instruct others on which team they should support.
I’ve been a Portuguese soccer fan since kindergarten. Before I took my first breath as an American, I was Azorean in my mother’s womb. I was Portuguese before I was American. That’s what some American soccer fans will never understand; they think it’s “just an ethnicity” and that birthplace should always and forever take precedence. It similarly doesn’t escape me that most of these persons who direct such criticisms are wholly unaware of their first ancestors to come to America, disconnected from any sense of cultural heritage outside the culturally-white American experience.
And yet, the Luso-American community wasn’t always willing to embrace me either.
In the late 90s, I would overhear my Tias telling my mother things like, “Are you gonna let her play with the men?” “She’s a girl. She really needs to wear something other than soccer shorts.” I constantly rocked way-too-big swooshy Umbro shorts that had been on sale at Building 19. It was the 90s, after all.
There were exceptions, of course, the strong few who encouraged my play. Back then, it was my older, athletic cousin Filipe Soares who was my biggest advocate on the pitch. “You’re really good,” he always said. “I want Kayla on my team!” One guess who I later chose as my confirmation sponsor.
Still, an older, distant male cousin would constantly berate, “Girls can’t play soccer,” each time I joined the pickup game. I would respond by crossing him up and dribbling by him with ease on my path to goal – which earned me the respect of the older, old-school Portuguese men (including the boy’s father) simultaneously earning him the ridicule of those same men.
I’ll never forget playing on a co-ed school team, filled with the sons and daughters of Portuguese-American kids, wearing raggedy T-shirts, with fatigued numbers and sweat stains, facing off against school teams in brand-new jerseys. One day when we were facing an all-boys team, a Portuguese dad yelled from the stands, “Don’t pass it to the girl!” I was the girl. When we went down a goal, I grabbed the ball, placed it at the center circle, looked at the man’s only son, and said, “Let’s go.”
Starting from the kickoff, we went past the entire opposing team with give-n-go passes exclusively between the two of us, until I saw an opening, took a shot and scored to tie the game.
On the pitch, soccer gave me something that I had never felt before growing up poor in a city that has been called, by some, including sports columnist Bill Reynolds, “a euphemism for the end of the world.” It was a sweet sense of possibility.
On the playing field, anything could happen. I could score off a corner kick, get a hat-trick, perform a bicycle kick, my team could defeat a “more talented” team, and I could prove my worth immediately and see the results.
I relished the challenge of playing against my cousins and uncles who were more than twice my age and size. I loved the way I felt after a give-n-go or when I scored. It gave me the confidence to challenge myself, set higher standards, and dream bigger. It didn’t matter if my cleats were old or even if the pair wasn’t designed for soccer, because I loved the way I felt wearing them.
On the soccer pitch, especially following the U.S. Women’s National Team’s 1999 World Cup win (hallmarked in American soccer consciousness by Brandi Chastain’s shirt-tearing, black-bra-bearing celebration after scoring the winning penalty kick), I had this sense that I could thrive as a Portuguese American by just playing my game, that I could succeed even though I trained in baseball cleats and Building 19 shorts on pitches that were more akin to abandon lots than soccer fields. And all of this is what so many people miss about sports — it’s always been about more than the game. That is why we need to make sure the game lives on and grows in Luso-American culture.