Anyone can remember the names of the American players who tried in vain to contain Brazil’s unstoppable run to the World Cup title in 1994, but what of the less celebrated men who helped the Seleção prepare during the weeks leading up to the tournament?
That story is less well known, except in the memories of the men who were there. A number of them – each one trying to carve out a professional soccer career in the Bay Area before Major League Soccer was anywhere on the map – went on to respectable or even impressive careers in MLS.
But perhaps the best story they can tell of their soccer careers is the time they spent as impromptu additions to the best soccer team in the world.
“If you tell someone that you trained with the Brazilian '94 champs for a week, they'll look at you like you're some (expletive),” says John Garvey, one of the lucky ones. “I don't even talk about it that much because people won't believe me.”
Believe it. During the buildup to the 1994 World Cup on American soil, the heavily favored Brazilians trained at Buck Shaw Stadium, the present day Santa Clara home of the San Jose Earthquakes. With the likes of Romario and Bebeto in tow, the Brazilians began training at Buck Shaw on May 26 and, as it turns out, needed some extra bodies to fill out their 11 v. 11 scrimmages under the Northern California sun.
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Laurie Calloway was their fixer. A native of England who had become a California transplant during the 1970s, Calloway was well connected in the Bay Area’s soccer community after previous playing and head coaching stints with the NASL’s Earthquakes and then as the man in charge of the American Professional Soccer League’s San Francisco Bay Blackhawks during the early 1990s.
Working as a liaison for the Brazilian national team during their time in the area, Calloway made some calls for reinforcements. One of the first calls went to Tim Martin, a San Jose native and a former defender on Calloway’s Blackhawks team.
Former San Jose Clash head coach Laurie Calloway served as the Brazilian national team's liaison while they trained in the Bay Area in 1994. (Getty Images)
“A few of the Brazilians are injured,” Calloway insisted. “You and Paul can come train.”
Paul Bravo was another local product out of nearby Campbell and a Santa Clara grad that had played for Calloway with the Blackhawks, and one of the best of the bunch that trained against the Brazilians. He went on to play for the San Jose Clash during MLS’ inaugural season in 1996 and then appeared in 135 matches for the Colorado Rapids between 1997-2001 before eventually taking his current post as the team’s technical director in 2009.
Calloway also called up Garvey, a journeyman who played for the Blackhawks in 1992 and eventually bounced around in the indoor leagues before playing for the Galaxy in 1996. And he dialed up Mark Semioli, a Stanford grad and Blackhawks defender who went on to play for the both the Galaxy and the MetroStars.
Bravo’s first thought was likely universal among the group. They were mostly college kids and part-time players, suddenly given the chance to rub shoulders and bang heads with the Brazilian national team in front of adoring fans at Buck Shaw Stadium. As players they weren’t on par with the likes of US heroes Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones or Tab Ramos, but that summer they would get their chance just the same.
“My first thought was, ‘hell yeah!’” Bravo recalls. “’Where do I sign up?’”
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Even during the first few days of practice, the stakes were high. Semioli remembers somewhere between 3,000 to 4,000 fans showing up at Buck Shaw to watch the training sessions, most of them either local fans or die-hards who had traveled roughly 6,000 miles from Brazil to watch their beloved team take America by storm.
“I remember the reporters. I remember the crowds,” Martin says. “I played at Fresno State and one of my last games was at Santa Clara with a huge crowd. So while I was out there [training with Brazil] I was like, 'this is almost like playing in the NCAA quarterfinals,' and this was only a practice.”
Former Colorado Rapids midfielder/forward Paul Bravo was one of the American players who trained with the Brazilian team in 1994. “My first thought was, ‘hell yeah!’” Bravo recalls. “’Where do I sign up?’” (Getty Images)
Brazil’s squad was loaded. Romario went on to win the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player, and Bebeto – who eventually sunk the Americans with the game-winning goal in the Round of 16 - was his perfect counterpart up top. Dunga was an all-world midfielder, and Jorginho and Marcio Santos were two of the best defenders in the tournament.
And perhaps most impressive in retrospect, there was Ronaldo. He was just 17 years old at the time and a full cycle ahead of his Golden Ball effort in the 1998 World Cup. He was eight years ahead of Brazil winning it all in 2002, when he would score two goals against Germany in the final in Yokohama and cement his legacy as one of the all-time greats in Brazilian history.
“He didn't play in any games [in 1994], but I played upfront [with him],” Garvey says. “We trained one day and he was so fast. He was the fastest person I've ever seen on a soccer field by a length or four steps. I remember I scored two goals against their first team: One was a tap-in from three yards and one was a header, only because he laid the ball right on my doorstep. He was unbelievable.”
Adds Bravo: “All of these players that were larger than life are now standing next to you on the same field. It's an exciting feeling, and you try to keep your emotions in check and do what's asked of you.”
Not everyone did what he was told. During one training session, a young defender from Santa Clara named Jason Annicchero took down Romario down with a vicious tackle from behind, and the Brazilian players stormed Martin, demanding an explanation.
“The players went after me because he took down Romario,” Martin says. “This was like a week before the World Cup!”
Annicchero – who went on to bounce around the minor leagues with the Seattle Sounders, San Diego Flash and Atlanta Silverbacks - was not invited back to training.
While some of the players who trained with Brazil never felt like they belonged – Garvey laughed at the question – others thought that they had more than held their own.
“I may not have been the best player, but I was pretty smart tactically, and I could figure things out pretty quickly,” Semioli says. “Surrounded by all these great players, I could probably play on this team too. It was so easy: You get the ball and there were five options. Everything was so predictable, but so precise. It just took me a couple weeks to get used to that style, but once I did I felt like I fit in.”
A big part of that feeling, Martin remembers, was the ease of playing alongside the best players in the world.
Mark Semioli played from 1996-2001 in Major League Soccer after that fateful summer of 1994. “I became such a better player after training with [Brazil],” Semioli says. “I had such a better understanding of the game and just a comfort on the ball and a vision on the field I didn't have before.”(Getty Images)
“When I was with [the Brazilians], the odd thing is, it was easier to play,” he says. “I felt like I could play on the field. I wasn't out of place. I wasn't like, 'whoa, I'm in way over my head here.' I didn't feel that way. When I played against [the Brazilians] with other players it was a lot more difficult.”
And the lasting effects?
“I became such a better player after training with them,” Semioli says. “I had such a better understanding of the game and just a comfort on the ball and a vision on the field I didn't have before.”
Semioli still wonders if Carlos Alberto Parreira, who coached that Brazilian team and who later went on to coach the MetroStars in MLS, thought back to those hot summer afternoons at Buck Shaw when he traded for him in 1997, the move that led Semioli to a string of solid seasons at Giants Stadium.
“I never asked Parreira, did he trade for me because he remembered me from playing with the Brazil team?” Semioli says. “Or was it just the way things went?”
Others don’t question fate. They simply look back and reflect on the summer 20 years ago and wonder, was it all real?
“I still think back, how did we play with Brazil?” Martin says. “I tell my kids that. They don't know Ronaldo, but they still know Brazil. It's hard to believe.”