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Monday, June 19, 2006
Updated: April 15, 2:49 PM ET
Perfect Pitch

By Jeff Bradley

The concrete staircase winds its way up the hill to the heavens. Every 15 steps or so, there's a turn. At every turn, a landing leads to several small, boxlike dwellings fashioned mostly from concrete and tin. Crude plumbing and electric wires pieced together with tattered strips of tape run exposed up the steps. The walls are covered with graffiti, the ground littered with empty beer bottles.

But heaven awaits at the end of the climb, which is why so many calloused bare feet endure the journey. Heaven, in this instance, is the soccer field that sits atop the hill in this poor neighborhood, or favela, known as Morro dos Prazeres (Mount of Pleasures), in the hills above Rio de Janeiro. Though there's not a blade of grass on the hard dirt pitch, none of the 30 or so children who have gathered on this hot, sunny afternoon seem to care. All they want is to get some touches on the ball and a chance to show their guests-especially those with a camera and notebook-what they can do.

Not all of the children are great players, but all can at least look the part of a Brazilian soccer star. When the ball comes their way, they don't just boot it downfield or out-of-bounds. Every last one of them knows how to make it obey his foot's command, how to move it to an open teammate. When there is ample time and space, they'll try the moves of their heroes on the Brazilian national team-Ronaldinho, Robinho, Adriano, Kaka, Cafu and the other one-name stars: a few quick steps over the ball, a clever pull-back, a fake shot that puts a defender off balance. When they score, they emulate their heroes' celebrations, smiling widely. They may not be born with the game in their blood, but it clearly seeps in.

"All of our players, from the time they are 3, 4, 5 years old, are playing in the yard, in the street, on the beach," says Brazil's national team coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira. "That is why, when Brazilians touch the ball, it is different. It is softer. We caress the ball. We love the ball."

A journey into the soul of futebol Brasileiro could well begin in a ghetto like dos Prazeres, because this is the kind of environment where many of Brazil's greatest players grew up. But the favela is actually the final stop on The Magazine's four-day tour in and around Rio, from beach soccer and futvolei (volleyball without hands) on the sands of Copacabana and Ipanema, to a Sunday match between blood rivals Flamengo and Fluminense at the historic Estádio Maracanã, and everywhere in between.

We saw legendary striker Romário score a goal the day before his 40th birthday. We saw a silver-haired 74-year-old named Joset João run youngsters through their paces at the Escolinha de Futebol Gratuito (Free Soccer School), just as he has every Saturday for 18 years. We saw Teresópolis, the affluent weekend village that is home to the national team's plush training site. We saw backstreet alleys and countless courts and fields where men, women and children play the game, in one form or another, around the clock. "At 3, 4 in the morning, that is when the waiters and busboys play," Parreira says. "You can see the lights in the park all night long. Football is our religion. Everyone must play."

And it's not just because Brazil is a five-time World Cup champion and the reigning king (not to mention the one and only country on the planet that enters every Cup expecting to raise the trophy). It's about how they play. Soccer isn't as structured, as disciplined here as it is in Europe and the U.S., where tactics and positional play are drilled into kids' heads from the youngest ages. Some Brazilians explain the difference by noting that the country has never been involved in a war of conquest. Locals love to talk about how independence was achieved virtually without bloodshed. In 1822, according to lore, Emperor Pedro I raised his sword toward Portugal and declared, "Independence or death," and everybody responded by heading to the beach to dance and celebrate.

So the game, which was brought to Brazil by the British in the 1890s, has always been, at its heart, just a game-a simple pleasure that anyone can embrace. Add in the year-round warm weather, the mix of native, African, Asian and European cultures, along with the sheer size of the country, and it's easy to see why Brazil is soccer's fertile crescent. Then there's the music. From the day in 1958 when a 17-year-old boy named Pelé led the nation to its first World Cup title, Brazilian soccer has always been said to resemble the sambathe fluid, rhythmic national dance. You have defenders, midfielders, forwards, even goalkeepers, who all want to express themselves on the pitch. "Brazilian players are not robotic," Parreira says. "We don't interrupt our young players, telling them to pass on the first touch. We give them freedom to create. It's only later that we introduce the discipline of playing without the ball."

There was a time when Parreira said that the only thing giving the rest of the field a chance in the World Cup was Brazil's poor organizational skills in managing its assets. With some 200,000 registered professionals scattered through hundreds of leagues (it's believed only 2% make a good living, while the rest play for food), and 2,000 others playing abroad (1,000 in Europe alone), that's not an easy task. Soccer players are Brazil's most abundant natural resource, and yet only in the past five or six years has the country begun to learn how to maximize that talent. "The clubs are doing a good job developing the players," Parreira says. "It is now only a legend that Brazil develops players in the streets."

Still, if a boy from, say, dos Prazeres is talented enough, word will filter down those concrete stairs, down to one of the clubs, and the boy will get his chance to play for the pro scouts.

Turns out, the secret behind the Brazilian "system" is really no secret at all. In fact, it has recently been co-opted as the centerpiece of Nike's multimillion-dollar worldwide marketing campaign. A single Portuguese phrase best explains why Brazil remains soccer's one and only superpower: Joga bonito. Play beautiful.

Maybe that's why it seems like heaven.