Friday August 5th, 2016

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — How much do Brazilians love soccer?

Well, let’s just say Brazil’s top soccer league, the Brasileirão, is continuing play during the Olympics. And on Thursday night I got to cross off a bucket list item by attending a raucous game between Cruzeiro and Internacional at the Estádio Independência.

The stadium is hallowed ground for U.S. soccer as the site of one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history: The U.S.’s 1-0 victory over England in 1950, in which the winning goal was scored by the immortal Joe Gaetjens.

In 2013 I came to Belo Horizonte to interview Elmo Cordeiro, an 82-year-old Brazilian who was a ballboy at the Independência for USA-England. But I didn’t get to visit the stadium itself, which was completely remodeled in 2012. On Thursday I rectified that along with four NBC friends: Arlo White, Sebastian Salazar, Michele Froman and Adrienne Lerner.

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Boy, was it worth it. After having dinner in the Santa Teresa neighborhood, we took an Uber to the Independência, which is about the most urban stadium I have ever been in. Wedged into its surroundings, the rectangular bandbox is situated on a hill that reminds you of San Francisco. Inside the stadium, the stands are banked in a precariously steep incline.

Even though Cruzeiro entered the game in 19th place, the atmosphere was electric. Although there are seats, everyone in the stadium was standing, not just in the general admission area but everywhere else too. The drums, the flags, the energy all went up to 11.

The game reflected that intensity. The opening 30 minutes were played at a breathtaking speed, but with plenty of technical skill as well. Internacional scored just two minutes in, but Cruzeiro mounted a furious comeback, taking a 4-1 lead through a hat trick by Rafael Sóbis. Due to Olympic soccer being played in the Mineirão, Cruzeiro’s home stadium, the team was hosting the game at the Independência. But it still felt like we had been invited by the Cruzeiro fans into their home living room.

The Cruzeiro fans around us welcomed our group with open arms, chatting us up and explaining what has been going on with their team. After Cruzeiro finished off a 4-2 victory, our new friends posed for pictures with us. One of them even gave Arlo his Cruzeiro hat as a souvenir.

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After the game, I tried to persuade security to let me onto the field. I was hoping to get some blades of grass from the exact spot where Gaetjens scored his historic goal against England. (I had done the same thing in Trinidad where Paul Caligiuri scored the goal that qualified the U.S. for the 1990 World Cup.) Alas, the security guard wouldn’t let me down there. So I settled for a photograph in front of the goal where Gaetjens scored.

As we left the stadium, I asked myself: How often does a bucket list moment live up to your expectations? This one did. Thank you, Brazil!

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