To most Americans, soccer is considered a second or third-tier sport that hardly deserves a mention on their nightly edition of Sports Center on ESPN.
In a society that demands instant gratification, Americans have little time for a sport that doesn't feature in-your-face slam dunks, bone rattling tackles or tape-measure-shot home runs. At the very least, Americans are suspicious of a low-scoring sport in which you can't use your hands.
But for a vast majority of the rest of the world, soccer is the only true sport. It is called the beautiful sport, and for good reason. It is played by some of the most finely tuned athletes in the world, who negotiate the field like an artist's brush across a pallet. Games often unfold at a leisurely pace, but are frequently punctuated by flashes of blinding speed and dizzying footwork.
On the Vineyard, with its diverse population hailing from every corner of the world, soccer is more than just a sport. It is a window through space and time that connects them to their native countries where soccer is king and baseball is only a funny game played with sticks and leather gloves.
Since the start of the World Cup in Germany last week, soccer fanatics from across the globe have donned their country's colors and swarmed to Island bars to watch their teams compete. And while soccer fans from England, Australia, France and countless other countries have made their presence felt, one group of non-native Islanders has proven to be the most fanatical and formidable.
"We look forward to this above everything else, we love this game - we love our team," a native Brazilian man in a Ronaldo jersey declared Sunday while watching the match against Australia at the Sand Bar and Grill in Oak Bluffs. "When we watch the games, we feel like we are all together back in Brazil. We are all together behind our team."
The man was one of many who turned out this weekend in bright green and yellow jerseys, letting everyone know that Brazil has the home court advantage when it comes to watching the 2006 World Cup on the Vineyard. The country has a rich soccer history, having won the Cup more times than any other nation, and pride for their native land was widely evident - if not contagious. Many gladly poured their hearts out to the Gazette regarding their passion for the sport.
But in the seconds following the 2-0 Brazilian victory, during the scramble of hugs and handshakes, this reporter's notebook was misplaced, and subsequently lost. This accounts for the omission of the names of those who took the time to talk to a reporter when they were desperately trying to focus on more important things - like watching a soccer game.
In speaking with several Brazilians, it became obvious that their devotion was devout, even bordering on the religious. One man, sporting earrings and a bandana full of dreadlocks, compared being a fan of Brazil to being a New York Yankees fan.
"Except, not everyone hates Brazil like they hate the Yankees. Brazil might be the best team, but they don't make people angry the way the Yankees do. Whatever the reason, even people who aren't from Brazil like the Brazilian team," he said.
Indeed, it seemed everyone on the Island was a fan this past week.
From Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs to Main street Vineyard Haven, it seems you couldn't throw a rock without hitting someone in a green and yellow jersey. And just as often, you would find an emboldened American approaching to ask: "When does Brazil play next? How is Brazil doing in the tournament?"
Of course not everyone on the Island is a Brazil fan - case in point being the five native Australians who also gathered at the Sand Bar and Grill Sunday. While the Brazilians were boisterous and chatty at the start of the game, the Australian delegation was more reserved and analytical. They were also clearly outnumbered. The Brazilian soccer delegation started at around 20 fans, and swelled to more than 50 as the game went on. While the Brazilians sang songs and shared high-fives in between sips of Brahma beer, the Aussies calmly sipped from bottles of Coors Lite and Sam Adams draft and largely talked among themselves.
When an Australian player was flagged for tackling a Brazilian player, one bold Brazilian cracked wise. "What do they you think this is, man? Rugby?" he said, referring to one of Australia's more widely followed sports. "This is soccer, man. There is no tackling."
The Aussies - who were joined by soccer fans from several European countries that did not make the tournament, including Ireland and Scotland - took the ribbing in stride.
"It's physical soccer, mate. Get used to it," shouted back one of the native Australians.
One Aussie said soccer is still not as popular as Australian rules football or rugby in his native country. But in a short period of time, the sport has risen in popularity.
"I've only just started following it, but I am definitely into [the tournament.] There are only like five or six Australians on the entire Island, so it has to be something important to get us all together like this," he joked.
The first half unfolded slowly, and remained knotted in a scoreless tie through halftime. Then, in a scoring drive typical of the team's explosive offense, Brazil went ahead in the 49th minute when Adriano wrapped a low shot past Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. And while this seemingly put all the pressure on the Australians and their fans, it was the Brazilians who were the most stressed in the second half.
One Brazilian, a young man who has been on the Island for more than 10 years, said he loves watching the World Cup, but admitted that watching the games made him anxious and overexcited.
"I get goose bumps," he said, showing his bumpy forearm with an equal mix of unbridled joy and concern. Suddenly, three other uncovered arms popped up from Brazilians also anxious to show off their bumps. "It may not be healthy for my heart. These games make me sweat too much," said another, who kept one eye firmly planted on the big screen television.
But like the scene from Jaws where the three shipmates compare scars, a third Brazilian man - likely in his mid-twenties - held up both his hands.
"I can't stop biting my nails," he said, displaying 10 digits capped with ragged fingernails. "I can only stop if they score another goal and have a comfortable lead. Then I only bite a little bit."
Throughout the second half, it seemed as if Australia had more quality scoring opportunities than the heavily favored Brazilians. Goalkeeper Dida was tested repeatedly, and several shots by Australian strikers missed their mark by inches. When Dida stopped one lazily arching shot from the crossing posts with what seemed to be the tips of his fingers, the gathering of Aussies let out a collective groan.
"One of those has to get through eventually," one man grumbled.
Minutes later, with time rapidly expiring on the game, Brazilian star player Ronaldo made a spectacular pass to teammate Adriano, who almost apologetically tapped in the shot from the corner of the penalty box to make the score 2-0. With mere minutes left on the clock and the game now firmly in hand, the Brazilians exploded in a shout probably heard all the way over on Nantucket and Woods Hole.
The crowd erupted into a lively chant of "Brazil, Brazil, Brazil!" A woman held aloft a smiley and silly baby wearing a yellow and gold skull cap, while several men standing on wooden benches shared a hug over some spilled beer.
"I can relax now. We should be okay now," said the man with the chewed fingernails, sharing a high five with an older man in purple T-shirt.
When the game ended just a few minutes later, something happened that was as spontaneous as it was shocking. Like a scene from a little league diamond, the wild eyed Brazilians suddenly grew sincere and made their way over to the Australians.
"Your team played excellent, we were lucky to win," said one Brazilian before giving an Aussie fan a big hug.
At the very least, this game brings people together who otherwise might have nothing in common.
"They're great sports fans. And I don't mind losing to them. After all, they are the best team in the world and we made a game out of it," said one Australian, adding: "If Australia is eliminated I'll probably root for Brazil - what can I say?"
Pictures by Mark Lovewell