The Biggest Week of Our Lives: An English Soccer Team's 100-Year Journey to Fame in Brazil
What would you do if you had one week to live out your dream? A legendary amateur soccer team got to answer that question for themselves.
Photo by Leandro Bernardes / leandrolb.com
It's 10 minutes before kickoff and Danny Bracken is pacing up and down the white hallway, his cleats clicking against the concrete. His head is bent downwards, blonde hair dangling over his forehead, chin tucked tightly against his sternum. He looks at the baby blue socks that rise above his ankles, then to his matching shorts with yellow trim and white keeper gloves. His eyes are up at the jersey now, sponsored by Barbosa, a Brazilian supermarket chain. After several paces, he lifts his gaze. He glares straight ahead at nothing.
In the moments leading up to a match, Bracken becomes a different person, almost a scary one. All week, Bracken's blue eyes had been windows into his inner workings, often watery with lament or narrow with laughter. But now, minutes before the biggest match of his life, they are opaque and dead.
While Bracken is deep inside his own head, Joel Thompson is sitting in the locker room, calm and still. It's easy to not notice Joel. He has a certain way that allows him to get lost in the fray a bit, to fade into the background. In some ways, this is a great trait for a forward to have. He can slide behind the defensive line, gaining that critical step over the opposition. From there, he trusts his own ability to take over. For Joel, there are no mind games, no psyche alterations. A simple job for a simple game.
Bracken and Thompson play for Corinthian-Casuals, an amateur English soccer team from Tolworth, just outside of London. Their pregame routines are the same regardless of how many people are watching, which in Tolworth is, at most, a few hundred. But they are not in Tolworth anymore.
Outside and above them, some 26,000 Brazilians scream for their superstars, who are lined up across from Bracken and Casuals. They are Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, the biggest soccer team in South America.
Photographers scuttle about seeking the perfect shot of the players in the tunnel. The space around them fills with the wails of children leaning over the tunnel's mouth, the incessant clicking of camera shutters, the annunciated narration by distant television hosts. This is the soundtrack of fame.
A week prior, the players were back in England, working what can only be described as normal jobs, living what can only be described as normal lives. The Casuals players were sitting in their offices, typing at their computers, filing reports, writing on chalkboards, stocking shelves, thinking about the moment they'd emerge from the tunnel. An entire stadium full of people would cheer for them, just as they'd always dreamed.
Everyone dreams. Everyone has that moment where they get lost thinking about the life they want to live. But what if it wasn't just a daydream? What if you boarded a plane that could take you to your dream? What would you do if, for one week, everything you had ever wanted came true?
While most Casuals have been playing soccer for as long as they can remember, Joel Thompson didn't start until he was 8 or 9 years old. Even then, he was just kicking the ball around with friends and family. His first love was basketball. "I just wanted to play basketball and watch Space Jam over a million times," Thompson recalls. "I wanted to be like Michael Jordan, like Muggsy Bogues. But football was just something I did because I was in England and that's how English people are."
He got offers to play for a few basketball teams, but the only one that provided any type of opportunity was in Hackney, a dangerous neighborhood his parents didn't want him frequenting. So he made the switch to soccer.
Despite his love of basketball, soccer was a natural evolution. His cousin, Omar Cummings, has been a solid Major League Soccer player since 2007. Three of his uncles have played for the Jamaican National Team. Every time he speaks to one of them, they pester him, when are you going pro? Soon, he replies. Soon.
At 14, Thompson played for his first organized team, a local club named Wanderers. "If you're just starting at that time, you're not looking to make it pro," he says. "People around you are saying you should have made it at 12 or 13."
At 17, Thompson had a one-day tryout at West Ham, where the scouts and coaches put him through drills and athletic tests. He thought he did well, but West Ham put him on the waiting list. He just wasn't the player they were looking for at the time, they said. Joel never heard from them again. It was a disappointment, but Joel kept at it.
After leading the South London Alliance in goals scored the following year, a friend recommended Thompson join Casuals, where he was more likely to get noticed. In order to get by, Thompson works night shifts at Primark, a clothing store chain. He shows up to work at 9 p.m. wearing all black, as mandated by the company dress code even though no customers will be in the store. It's the kind of rule that nobody can explain but everyone follows.
Each night, he has to unpack and stock anywhere from 30 to 60 pallets of clothes, which sometimes means upwards of 300 boxes per night. He gets an hour to himself in the middle of the night and another 15 minute break, but otherwise he is hustling to unpack and stock, unpack and stock, unpack and stock. "You try and work at a consistent pace which is obviously physically impossible, but you have to try."
Thompson passes the time by turning it into a training regimen. He runs, jogs, hustles through his shift, working as quickly as he can, sweating into his pitch black clothes. Some of his coworkers use energy drinks to get through the shift, but Thompson refuses to drink them. Everything is a test, a chance to improve. He knows that the difference between where he is now and where he wants to be is sweat.
But time is running out. Joel is 25, already in what is considered the meaty part of the age curve for a professional athlete. It's not unheard of for players to make the jump from semi-pro or amateur leagues to professional clubs, but it is rare. Something has to go perfectly right. There has to be a break. Joel is hoping the match against Corinthians in Brazil is it.
The Casuals manager has told Joel he will come on as a substitute around the 30 minute mark. He will have one hour to play the game of his life. As he stacks boxes in the weeks leading up to the trip, his mind wanders. What if he scores the winning goal in front of tens of thousands of people? What if he makes a perfect run against a stout defense, smacking a cross into the net where no keeper can save it? What if he outruns a professional fullback, beats his man, and gets to the ball first? Surely someone would have to notice that.
Danny Bracken's love of soccer was given to him at birth. His father, Bill Gardner, didn't miss a West Ham match for 35 years, from 1960 until 1995, which coincided with the most tumultuous era of English soccer history. He'd have to literally fight his way to many away matches.
Between West Ham games, Gardner was active in the local youth football scene, running soccer programs for special needs children. Bracken's mother, a nursery school teacher, and brother, a full-time coach, stick to the family maxim as well. "As a family, we haven't done anything for too much money, but we enjoy helping people," Bracken says.
Most of the Casuals can remember kicking the ball around in their back garden, scoring imaginary Premiership-winning goals for their favorite London club. Danny was no different. When he was 12, he was selected to join the West Ham Youth Academy as a keeper, a tremendous honor for the family and opportunity for Bracken's professional prospects. Twice a week for three years, Bracken would run out of school, jump in his dad's car, drive to the training grounds an hour and a half away, and train before returning home to do his homework.
"Football is my love, my passion," he says. Of course he wanted to play professionally. The very idea of playing soccer every single day was almost too good to fathom. How could someone be paid to do the thing they love?
But it was not to be. At 15, West Ham kicked Bracken out of the academy because, for all of the reasons in the world, he was too short. "It was hard to take because you can't do anything about your height. The height is what you're born with." Of the kids he played with, a few made it onto professional teams for a year or two, but none are still professionals.
Regardless, Bracken bursts with pride remembering those days. Merely being able to say he represented West Ham, a club his dad sacrificed so much to support and Bracken himself loves, made the entire experience worthwhile. He still roots for West Ham.
After that disappointment, Bracken got on with his life. He attended the University of Brighton and received his degree in sports coaching before beginning his teaching career. He's now 24 years old and teaches at a private school outside of London. While at Brighton, he signed up to play with Corinthian-Casuals even though the team's facility was over an hour from both his home and university. Bracken estimates there were about 10 teams closer that he could have joined, all of which offered him money, sometimes up to a third of his teaching salary. But money was never that important to him. He happily lives with his parents, who still drive him everywhere because he doesn't have a car.
Besides, these other clubs were missing something special, something that mattered to Bracken and many other Casuals players. "None have the history of Casuals."
For Bracken and his teammates, the match in Brazil is bigger than themselves and their remote professional prospects. It's about honoring a century-old relationship and the roots of the sport they love so much.
The Corinthians were founded in 1882 by N.L. Jackson, the assistant secretary of the English Football Association as an "elite standard bearer for the amateur game," writes historian David Goldblatt in The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer. Back then, amateurism meant more than simply not being paid. It meant not practicing either, which was considered "bad form."
Soccer, of course, was a very different sport back then. The games were rougher, tougher, and slower. Passing was considered somewhere between cowardly and ungentlemanly. Still, the sport was growing; not just in England, but everywhere Englishmen went, which, in the age of the empire, was everywhere. The demand for the game was such that the British ethos of amateurism was rapidly becoming antiquated and unsustainable, much to the lament of the country's powerful aristocracy.
Corinthians were one of the best teams in the world. They supplied the English national side with a majority of its players: nine of the starting eleven in 1886, and the entire team in 1894 and 1895. Goldblatt describes the Corinthian spirit as "an aura of Olympian indifference to their own brilliance." An unnamed observer from the era, quoted in An Altogether More Splendid Life: Industrial Football and Working-Class Britain, 1888-1914, wrote, "There was an air of casual grandeur, a haughtiness that was not yet haughty, which seemed intangible." The Corinthians were, quite possibly, the world's first soccer superstars.
The team quickly became ambassadors for the sport, comprised of the best players in the country. Corinthians didn't enter competitions, but instead responded to and issued challenges. Corinthians' greatest and most enduring legacy is their tours abroad to South Africa, Australia, Continental Europe, the United States, and Brazil. The formation and identity of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and countless other clubs across the world can be traced to Corinthians' early ventures.
After a tour to São Paulo in 1910, a group of railway workers and painters formed their own club in the northeastern section of the city, creating Sporting Club Corinthians, named after the traveling British team. SC Corinthians grew rapidly, attracting working class members from the city's increasingly diverse populace.
A return trip was scheduled four years later, in 1914, where the two Corinthians would play in São Paulo. However, World War I erupted during the team's journey to Brazil. Upon hearing the news, the British aristocrats did what most aristocrats opted to do at the time: they chose war. They got off the ship in Rio de Janeiro long enough to stretch their legs before setting course for the battlefields of Europe.
The English Corinthians would never be the same again. Almost all of their players died in the Great War. The club stumbled through the interwar years, and in 1939, had to merge with another club, Casuals, to ward off extinction. The grandiosity of the club's noble beginnings have been supplanted by constant financial worries and struggles to survive. Their sporting spirit is the only remnant of its past, great self. Now, amateurism isn't a choice, but a necessity.
The story of Brazil's Corinthians could not be more different. The formerly working class club has since become one of the biggest clubs in the world, its worth is estimated at $358 million by Forbes, which would make it the most valuable soccer team outside of Europe. Its players make tens of thousands of dollars a month, if not more. When they won the Club World Cup in 2012—beating Chelsea in the final—some 15,000 fans greeted them at the airport. Meanwhile, Casuals fans are few enough in number that players have nicknames for their most ardent supporters.
Still, Corinthians fans in Brazil maintain a potent infatuation with their English past. This is why Casuals have over 140,000 Facebook fans, an astounding number for a club toiling in the eighth tier of English soccer. At the England-Uruguay match in São Paulo during this summer's World Cup, fans wearing Casuals' iconic pink and brown jerseys dotted the stands. Corinthians supporters make pilgrimages to Tolworth, England, the site of Casuals' home grounds, worshiping the origins of their beloved club. To say Casuals have more fans in Brazil than England would be missing the point; virtually all of their fans are Brazilian.
Every once in a while, Corinthians' front office debates the prospect of holding a friendly against Casuals. Usually, the idea is vetoed because it would require spending money. But the new stadium, which hosted the opening match of the World Cup, and hundred year anniversary of the friendly that was never played presented a unique opportunity. Thanks to the feverish efforts of former Casuals player Chris Watney, his business partner Jay Barrymore, and a small army of eager volunteers, Corinthians marketing director Alexandre Ferreira had the justification he needed. "This project was one of the first that came to my desk. We found it was something our supporters were demanding: a match against Casuals here in Brazil in the new arena."
During the Casuals' first full day in Brazil, hundreds of fans of all ages lined up on a quiet residential street off Paulista Avenue around the hilly, tree-lined block to meet their English heroes. Inside their hotel, the players are seated at rearranged wooden bar tables forming an "L" shape around a covered terrace. The roof traps the midday heat up against a glass partition between the bar and hotel lobby, and the room feels something like an underpowered oven. Hotel staff members stand cross-armed, guarding their VIP guests.
The line of fans moves slowly. The players never let their smiles melt for even the slightest second. A fan who is waiting amongst the crowd and heat, Felipe Reis, wipes the sweat from his face while explaining his desire to purchase an amateur team's shirt and get it signed by an IT manager and police officer. "We like soccer," he says. "We like the soul. Amateur is passion, amateur is football soul."
Earlier that day, just off a major highway, the large security gates at Corinthians training facility part for the Casuals team bus. One by one, as the players descend from the bus in their matching navy blue polos and track pants, they feast their senses on footballing eden. The spotless blue sky shoots down rays of harsh sunlight. Carpet-like grass spreads for acres. Corner flags wait for a breeze to brandish their Corinthians crest.
Normally, nobody is allowed inside this place. A chain-linked fence runs around the entire perimeter. Today, the only visitors are two large middle-aged men in dirty white shirts and a boy on the other side of the fence that hugs the perimeter. The boy shies away, but the men stick their fingers through the holes in the fence, begging one of the Casuals to shake them.
The private enclave is separated from its lower-middle class surroundings by a towering wall. The approximately 30-foot high divider pays homage to São Paulo's legendary street art with black and white murals depicting the most iconic Corinthians moments. The wall, sponsored by Nike, runs for hundreds of feet, each moment relentless with its own grandiosity. Greater São Paulo engulfs 20 million people, but inside these walls, it is peaceful and still.
The players break out their various cameras, mostly iPhone 6's or iPads, and pose in front of the Corinthians logos on various fixtures. Some pivot to take panoramas. After a few minutes, a grinding sound faintly poisons the serene air. A few players locate the source of the sound as Bracken's disposable camera, with its cubic blue cover and manual winding mechanism. The guys make fun of Bracken's luddite object, but he doesn't really get the big deal. He just wants some pictures. Anyways, Bracken isn't a big selfie guy.
After touring the grounds, the team goes to the locker room to change into their navy blue practice jerseys. Bracken takes the field in a white keeper's jersey and black longsleeve undershirt despite the triple digit heat. He now stands at 6 foot 3 inches, plenty tall for a keeper these days. He begins by doing some light dribbling and taking a few gentle attempts from other players, purposely falling to the grass before springing upwards into the ready position so he can go right back down again. They're simple drills, but Bracken executes them with a kind of limbic control that is either forged through extreme repetition, natural ability, or both.
Most people think soccer balls are perfectly round, but they often aren't. Starting in the 1970s, soccer balls evolved from their heavy, rough shape and became 32 alternating patches of hexagons and pentagons stitched together. In the 2000s, the design of high end balls evolved again to become a truncated octahedron, consisting of eight hexagonal and six square faces. But, go to your local sporting goods store, and you're likely to purchase a soccer ball that isn't really round, at least not perfectly so. If the ball is kicked and lands with just the right spin on an unrefined edge, it will hop unpredictably. Most of the time, nobody will notice these blemishes because, if you're playing soccer with a ball that cheap, you're probably playing on a surface to match. This is just how soccer is, and how a lot of other things are, too. You do the best you can with what you have.
Everything at the Corinthians facility, though, is flawless. The grass is so perfectly smooth, the exact right healthy, vibrant green that doesn't quite absorb the sun's light but doesn't reflect it either. The blades are spaced like fans seated at a stadium. Even the soccer balls are just right, which the surface allows you to appreciate. The balls don't skip, hop, jump, roll, or even skitter. They slide, like tuned skis easing along fresh powder.
This idealized version of soccer is something different than the game played when a bunch of aristocrats crossed the ocean a century ago, a technical improvement that opens up possibilities that didn't exist before: longer crosses, better shots, faster passes, niftier jukes. The players we admire are different, too; so rarely are they the doughy amateurs of decades past that bounced between the pitch and the pub. They're perfect forms now, sculpted by the knives of youth academies and modern science. The characters have changed as much as the game itself.Imagine being a professional athlete. Your mind's eye will almost certainly wander to the game winning goal, the critical save, being the hero. The vast stretches of time between those moments in a professional athlete's life don't make it into the picture. The Casuals players are learning about that part of the deal.
Early in the week, the team traveled to a hospital on a hilltop. Arena Corinthians, the $435 million World Cup jewel, sits across the valley below, sticking out amid the orange-pink roofs of nearby houses. Doctors and nurses in all-white stroll off to another difficult conversation that's become all too routine.
Dr. Sidnei Epelman, the pediatric oncologist, explains this is an outpatient facility that treats children and adolescents with all types of cancer. About 300 kids per year come from the farthest reaches of Brazil because of the relatively advanced treatment methods available. The government provides some money, but since most of the kids come from poor households, the hospital also has to provide housing and transportation for the treatment. It makes up the difference with private donations and fundraising.
Bracken looks around the room and spots a small girl with black, curly hair and a pink headband with a bow on top, seated in a turquoise recliner. For the next 45 minutes, they draw pictures—terribly, by his account—and watch cartoons; pointing, laughing, smiling. She has been in and out of the hospital for her entire life; illness is as much a part of her life as anything. He can pronounce her name, but he doesn't know how to spell it.
Cancer treatment is, if nothing else, boring and monotonous: day after day, week after week, hoping for some improvement that may never come. Epelman tells me that visits like these matter not so much for anything the players do, but because they break up the days and weeks into distinguishable chunks, marking the passage of time. Sure, anyone could do it, but knowing they're soccer players who will play against the mighty Corinthians, well, this is something the kids will remember.
Towards the end of the visit, Bracken gives the girl an extra-small Casuals jersey. When Bracken hands her the jersey, she jumps out of her chair and sprints around the room in excitement, eyes wide, her smile toothless and broad. After returning, she puts on the jersey, which extends below her knees and past her elbows. It didn't matter that the light pink and brown of the jersey clashed with her hot pink headband and bow. It was something she could call her own, something that made her happy, and that alone made it good.
Everyone has their own reasons for wanting fame. Admittedly, most of them are egocentric: opportunity, acclaim, admiration, attention. Bracken doesn't care about those things; he wouldn't be on Casuals if he did. He'd be back in England face-down in a damp field making ￡150 a week for some semi-pro club. Instead of, so improbably, making this little girl smile.
The game on Saturday, the whole reason Bracken has come to Brazil in the first place, is now both meaningless and more important than ever. If Bracken remains some 24-year-old British schoolteacher, he will have so little time for so many people. But being a footballer, a proper footballer, well, that smile told Bracken all he needs to know.
When it's time to go, the girl gives Bracken a kiss on the cheek. His eyes fill with the tears he had held inside.
For the week in Brazil, time passes mostly on the bus, providing a first class tour of the city's sprawling roadways as we become intimately familiar with Sao Paulo's rush hour traffic. Bracken sits towards the middle with the captains and leaders. Joel is more towards the back, looking out the window a lot, taking in the drivers in old, beat-up Fords along with the city's random surprises of architectural delights. From his vantage point, the entire city is an elaborate make-believe. If you've dreamed of something for your entire life and then you're suddenly there, what could possibly happen to convince you it's real?
Creeping towards 11 p.m. that Tuesday night—the same day as the hospital visit—there was a party, and not much can stand between young British soccer players and a party. It's not far from Pacaembu Stadium, Corinthians' home for over 60 years, a classic Roman-style stadium with epic columns visible from the street. Despite the late hour, the city bustles with rusted cars and pedestrians on their way to or from a good time.
You can hear the drumbeat over the roaring midnight traffic from blocks away. The bus moves towards it, as if drawn in by a tractor beam. Before long, the rhythm's crescendo defeats the players' exhaustion and seeps into their bones.
The bus comes to a halt outside of a nondescript warehouse on a partially closed street. If traffic really wanted to get through it probably could, but no one is stupid enough to try. A few older women are busy tending to grills straddling the sidewalk. The smell of grilled sausages, chicken legs, and steak seeps into the bus along with the music, and it's impossible to determine which is more intoxicating. Locals take food they don't pay for. The Casuals walk past the grill—reluctantly—into the warehouse and, one by one, halt and gape when they see what's inside.
Drums and cymbals mold together to form a single assault. The beat is so rapid that each individual sound fights with the rest to enter your eardrums, ultimately breaking down the barriers and forming a crush inside your brain. It's indistinguishable, it's raw, it's a dozen shots poured into a case of Red Bull mixed with coffee and funnelled into your synapses. It's pure energy and it's impossible to do anything but love it.
The warehouse is dominated by a large, open area. Everything, from the banners to the signs to the people's clothes, is either red, white, or black. The band is towards the front, just in front of the stage, where four men sing the completely inaudible words that presumably accompany the percussive freakout. The stage is backdropped by a frighteningly huge stenciled hawk gripping chains in its talons with 'Gaviões" ("hawk" in Portuguese) in bubble letters above it. Just above the chains, running on either side of the hawk's talons, is the slogan "A corrente jamais será quebrada," translated to "The chains will never be broken." This is the headquarters of'Gaviões da Fiel, the largest Corinthians fan group.
The players—immediately recognized with the help of their matching white Casuals polos—are led to the far side of the warehouse where two large guards permit them to advance up the narrow staircase to the balcony. Around a thousand people form a large oval on the floor as two women in black dresses with white laces twirl Gavioes flags in unison. They don't especially match the beat, inasmuch as it is at all possible to match such a nebulous thing, but they have clearly practiced enough to be in sync with each other.
Soon after, the oval migrates to the back of the warehouse and the band takes up its position in front. A woman steps forward, immediately noticeable by her anachronistic bright yellow skirt. Her skin, the color of Copacabana's wet sand, glistens under the lights. Her jet black hair twirls in a tight ponytail as she dances. Every man in the warehouse was either staring at her or pretending not to.
After a short while, the Casuals are escorted to the stage to officially announce their presence. The bright spotlights give the players no respite from the day's heat. In a giant huddle, they dance like college kids at the club, one hand in the air while bouncing up and down, rigid as streetlamps, far away both spiritually and philosophically from the woman with the bright yellow skirt. But they are the guests of honor and can do no wrong. After what seems like an exhaustingly long time, the music stops and one of the men on stage introduces them to the crowd, which dutifully erupts.
When the players return to the balcony, their shirts are soaked in their own stink. But that doesn't stop nearly every person on the balcony from insisting on photos. Gavioes men preemptively remove their shirts in the hopes of exchanging them with one of the players. Women take pictures with the players, occasionally sneaking a kiss on the cheek just before the shutter opens. A few even swap shirts with the players, too, who are only too eager to comply. Beer appears, and, like the rest of the week, is magically free. As soon as one photo op ends, a new group rushes forward. More and more fans come up the stairs. The more photos they take, the more fans arrive. This is the first time the Casuals players learn that there is no satiating the public's demand; no matter how many pictures you take, they will always want more; no matter how many shirts you swap, they will always want to swap again. You are no longer yours, you are theirs for the taking.
When the band has stopped playing and it's finally time to leave, the players walk onto the bus looking like a version of the Village People stocked from a going-out-of-business thrift store. Some have shirts several sizes too big, others skin-tight. From here forward, the players know to at least find someone about their size. Casuals fullback Niall Wright, who, with his handsome, slicked back hair and gentle eyes never fails to attract attention, comes out of the warehouse clinging to his shirtless body against the pre-dawn wind. When I ask how he managed to end up with no shirt at all, he shrugs and smiles.
"They just kept asking for it."
Two days later, as dusk settles over the horizon on the return flight from a day trip to Rio de Janeiro, Niall has a towel draped over his head and his fists are clenching his own kneecaps. The plane is plowing straight ahead through a vicious thunderstorm. The pilot toggles the seatbelt sign like a toddler experimenting with a button on a Fisher Price toy. Every time the wingtip lights blink, raindrops flicker in and out of focus.
Stuart Tree, the team's photographer, reminds anyone within earshot that planes are meant to withstand precisely this kind of lightning storm. "Planes are extremely resilient," he assures everyone, not the least of which himself. As soon as the words fade, the plane jumps up 10 feet and down 20 quicker than you can shriek. The turbulence fails to dislodge Niall's towel, who remains silent and still.
"Hey, is the fuel supposed to be leaking from the wing like that?" winks Llew Walker, the Casuals youth director. The question lingers for a second, but Niall doesn't budge. Even within the week's dream world, he still has to pretend to be somewhere else.
A few hours before, Casuals had the unfortunate timing of visiting Christ the Redeemer as a storm rolled in. The massive depiction of Jesus Christ was rendered invisible thanks to the thick midday storm. The team learned then what it's like to literally stand in a cloud. Mostly, they were unimpressed.
Clouds are windy, damp, and cold. Sometimes you can barely even see your own hand. Other times it starts raining, but just on you, for about five seconds. A sudden gust of wind is pretty routine, and it usually comes when you're holding something that will easily blow away. That is, clouds are like a lot of things, in that they look like one thing from a great distance but are something else entirely up close.
At Christ's feet, a contraption has been rigged so that people can stand on a mat and use a remote to trigger the perfect picture of themselves with the statue in the background. But, due to the clouds, it's just a picture of two people standing against a fog. The Brazilian equivalents of park rangers erect a green screen behind the mat. After the picture is snapped, the tourists will walk over to a booth where the statue on a crisp, clear sky is superimposed behind them. What will these people tell their family and friends? Will they explain how they got the picturesque background superimposed, or will they lie and say everything was perfect?
Like the clouds, celebrity life is very different when you're in it. A few players told me they couldn't imagine living like this all the time, being in the public eye, appearing on newspaper covers every morning, being interviewed constantly, always having to be thinking, "How would this look if it showed up on YouTube?" The word "exhausting" is floated around a lot. It's fine for the week—great, even—but only because it is for a week.
The towel is still tight over Niall's face. The plane keeps jolting like someone is playing a particularly jittery game of Frogger and we are the frog. Even the most seasoned fliers on the plane are starting to look nervous.
The plane starts to sink gradually now. Distant bolts of lightning flicker against the twilight. Niall's missing a spectacle that would be unimaginable from the ground, but he can't bring himself to look.
Once the aircraft emerges below the clouds, the wind relaxes and the rain eases. Niall removes the towel to view the sprawling cityscape of apartment block after apartment block.
After landing, the plane appears untouched by the chaos above. It's hard to even detect any moisture on the fuselage. The wings are pristine, the headlights bright. It's as if the storm never happened at all.
On the morning of the game, the players relax at the Corinthians' 16-room hotel. The ground floor is an exhibit of luxury: a game room with wall-mounted televisions, billiards, ping pong, foosball, and poker tables. Midway through the morning, a barber strolls through rolling a large suitcase behind him. He stops in the corner of one of the rooms in front of a glass wall and removes his scissors, razor, and clippers. A few Casuals take advantage of his services. Mounted on the wall across from him, a dozen Beats headphones have been sliced down the middle and placed in frames, sticking out from the wall at a right angle. Below the frames, in large, all-caps bold font: S/C/CORINTHIANS.
While the others shoot pool, play ping pong, or give instructions to the barber on precisely how they like their part, Joel slumps on one of the leather couches tapping away at his iPad, legs stretched. This is his pregame routine, more or less: scrolling through Facebook, watching funny videos, doing his best to decompress. He says he feels good about the game, that he will do everything he can and the rest is in God's hands.
As a show of hospitality, the two teams switch buses for the ride to the stadium. Corinthians' bus is sponsored by The Simpsons and features Homer angrily kicking a soccer ball. Inside, the bus has more amenities than most hotel rooms: a water cooler, bathroom, coffee machine, refrigerator, and full-size reclining chair for the manager. For the ride to the stadium, most of the players stare out the window at the street art scrolling by and awe at the police escort, wonderfully oblivious to the history of conflict between the two.
The locker room at Arena Corinthians is like something out of a science fiction movie where the entire world has been sterilized beyond recognition. The color ranges from white to off-white to off-off-white, which is basically beige. The cabinets in each locker unfold themselves with only the slightest touch. The bathroom sink mirrors have TV screens in them.
Everyone seems to have their own personal goals for the match. Bracken wants to keep a clean sheet for 45 minutes. He figures that if he can keep one of the best teams in the world goalless for an entire half, that would be a kind of victory in itself. Joel wants to score. Before kickoff, the TV station broadcasting the game in Brazil interviews manager Matt Howard and asks him what he thinks of Casuals' chances and how their week in Brazil has been.
"Absolutely no chance, and this has been the biggest week of our lives or ever will be."
Corinthians spent a lot of the game effortlessly knocking the ball back and forth between themselves, one-touch passes without any pauses. They weren't going easy on Casuals—at least it didn't appear so—but the ease with which they moved the ball was a testament to the talent gap. Before you could blink, Corinthians would be in the final third. Their movements were strong and fierce, yet effortless. For most of the match, Casuals players reached out to grab them with the same kind of hopeless extension as the fans in the stands.
Joel comes on in the 30th minute, but he is a prisoner of his own position and circumstance. Casuals had the ball for five of the opening 30 minutes, at most, and wouldn't fare much better the rest of the way. Joel plays hard, but not particularly effectively. He wouldn't get many chances to do otherwise. His only real opportunity came in the first half, shortly after he came on the field. Working off the counter, a cross came into the box, where Joel was the only Casuals player. The Casuals crosses hung in the air a beat longer than the Corinthians ones, floating more than targeting. This particular cross was their most effective of the day. Joel eyed it carefully, wrestling with the Corinthians defender for positioning. The ball kept soaring, almost for too long, until it curved just over Thompson's head, as if he was never meant to touch it.
Still, Bracken and Casuals played 75 scoreless minutes against one of the best teams in South America. The first goal came off a deflection by one of their own defenders; there was nothing Bracken could do. Corinthians practically walked the ball in front of the penalty spot for the second; there was nothing Bracken could do. The third came in stoppage time, after the star players for each side switched teams in a symbolic gesture of good sportsmanship. The shot was a strong volley from the top of the 18-yard box; there was nothing Bracken could do.
The game ended 3-0, but nobody really cared about the score. Some didn't even know it. When the match ended, the Corinthians players hurry off into the tunnel and the locker room, but, unwilling to relinquish the moment, Casuals stay.
Bracken makes his way around the pitch as he poses for photos with every single fan against the railing. Some beg him for his gloves; he's already given them away. Others cry out for his shirt; he's already swapped that with the Corinthians keeper and he wants to keep it. Still more tug at him, asking for his shoes. "I can't afford new ones," he tells them, but they surely don't understand because they continue to beg. Bracken doesn't know what else to do. "I'm a school teacher, I can't afford new ones." The fans beg more for his shoes, and he begs for forgiveness that he can't give them.
A fan passes his son of about four—he's wearing a Corinthians jersey, jorts, and a particularly distasteful frown—over the plexiglass divider for a photo. Bracken dutifully holds the child and smiles for the camera, but the kid does no such thing. After passing the child, who is now on the verge of tears, back to his parents, Bracken continues his way down the line, a slow march from fan to fan wearing the black and white of Corinthians.
For the entire week in Brazil, Casuals have been local celebrities, which in an urban area pushing 20 million people, is more celebrity than most can handle. They've been on the cover of every morning's newspaper, appeared on television, and were interviewed by many newspapers and websites. They've been recognized by waitresses at restaurants and ambushed walking into clubs. Grown men have reached through barbed wire fences just to touch them. Old women have removed their shirts in the hopes of swapping with them. Young women have removed their shirts just to show them what's underneath. Once they leave the field, though, this version of themselves, the one they've always wanted, is gone. It will be back to England, back to their jobs, back to everything they've ever known. All of this—the stadium full of screaming fans, the luxurious practice facility, the perfect field, the admiration—goes back inside the vacuum of their minds. It's here, in the final throes of reality, that the Casuals players cling to the thin line between fantasy and memory
Bracken won't leave the field because there are still fans waiting for him. He keeps smiling, posing, hugging. After about half an hour, armed security guards descend upon him and instruct Bracken to go to the locker room.
Bracken takes three or four steps away. The pleads from fans intensify, and he returns for one or two last handshakes. The guards give him a stern look, the kind that only men with guns can give. Bracken apologizes to the guards, to the fans still waiting for him. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he keeps saying over and over, turning in each direction to face a new fan until he morphs into a turret of sorrow, spewing apologies in every conceivable direction. He keeps backing away from the stands, closer to the tunnel, to the flight home, to England, and further from the week's reality. He keeps turning, waving, apologizing. He doesn't see the fans whose days are now brighter because of him, he only sees the ones still screaming. He wonders what the rest of their days will be like, if they'll be mad at him for leaving without a handshake, if they'll resent him for it, or if there was anything he could have done. He sees he's only made it a quarter of the way around, that he still has so far to go, and tears begin to stream down his face. This is the exact moment when Danny Bracken realizes once again that the only thing more terrifying than never getting to live your dream is having to walk away from it.
The next week, Bracken's school had an assembly for him. He got up in front of 250 children, aged 5-11, and told them about his week in Brazil. To the best of my knowledge, he left out the part about the women taking off their shirts.
The children seemed interested, but his fellow teachers asked the most questions. They wanted to know what it was like being famous for a week. Bracken doesn't really know how to answer that. It's back to Shirt-And-Tie Danny, to Coaching Under-Eights Football On Saturday Mornings Danny. The pleasures are smaller here—a note from a student saying "Mr. Bracken is amazing," or learning he is one of his students' favorite teacher—but they're no less important, and far more real.
There was no assembly for Joel at work. He got off the plane at Heathrow and immediately noticed the rain. Friends and family asked him what it was like, and the only word he could think of was "incredible." He believes the experience made him a better player. He now tries to emulate the Corinthians' rapid ball movement, thinking less, acting quicker. It's working. He can tell already. Everything is a learning experience, a chance to improve, to be better, to get closer to where he wants to be. Soon, he will be a pro. He knows it. Soon.
Sometimes, when he needs a moment, Joel closes his eyes and goes back. Almost 30,000 fans are singing and screaming for him. He's dashing down the right flank, using his speed and the space to gain an advantage. A pass comes soaring through the air towards him, but it has too much on it. Shit, it's going too far. He sprints, harder and faster now, pumping his arms and legs as fast as he can. Forward, faster now, keep going, faster. The ball is about to go out of bounds. He can't let it go out of bounds. He only has this hour. He works too hard every day for the ball to go out of bounds. He can't let it go out of bounds. He's close now, he's close enough to reach, he almost has it. The fans behind the line are pointing, reaching, screaming, arms in the air urging him on. Reach the ball, Joel, they seem to be saying to him. Get the ball! He feels their encouragement deep in the fibers of his muscles and he runs even faster than he thought he could. When the crowd is behind him, he can do anything. He lunges with the power stored inside him over his entire life. With his leg in the air and the ball hanging above, it's there, in that split second, that everything stops.
He sees it all so clearly then: the fans, the ball, the field, it's all there right in front of him. It makes perfect sense. As long as his eyes stay closed, the ball will always be in play.