ORLANDO, Fla.—When he boards the plane with his Orlando City teammates to Rio De Janeiro on Thursday, Pedro Ribeiro will be en route to fulfill a dream.
The Lions striker, born in Brazil, grew up fantasizing about playing at the mighty Maracanã Stadium in Rio, and Sunday’s friendly against storied club Flamengo will finally grant his greatest soccer wish.
Orlando’s Brazilian connection – via majority owner Flavio Augusto da Silva, chief executive Alexandre Leitao and star man Kaká – led to the invitation to be part of Flamengo’s 120th anniversary, with a game at the most hallowed of Brazilian venues.
The reconfigured Maracanã holds a relatively modest 78,000 fans, but once reported a staggering 199,850 attendance for the 1950 World Cup Final between Brazil and Uruguay.
“Yes, it is something I have dreamt about,” Riberio said. “And now it will be a reality. I take it as a huge privilege to play on such a high stage. It will be a great opportunity not just for me but the whole team.
“It is one of the most famous and most important stadiums in the world. It has staged two World Cup finals and is dear to the heart of every Brazilian. I have been there as a fan and even got to step on the grass once as a kid, but it is something else to play there.”
With Kaká away on international duty for Brazil for World Cup Qualifiers against Argentina and Peru, Ribeiro will become team leader for the trip, and his teammates have been quick to direct their inquiries.
“The guys have been asking me all kinds of questions,” Ribiero said. “They want to know about the Maracanã and about Brazil. All the guys, especially those who are not from Central or South America, want to know more. We will have some down time and I will take the guys out to a few places.
“They also want to know more about what it will be like to play there because it will be a very different style of play from MLS and we will certainly be treating it like an important game.”
Having been born and brought up initially in the city of Belo Horizonte to the north, Ribeiro will be something of a celebrity on his return, with as many as 70 family and friends making the journey down to Rio.
“It is a 4-hour drive and many will take buses to get there,” he said. “It will certainly be a big occasion and something of a celebration. But it is important to this organization, to the coaching staff and the owners, and to our fans.”
Orlando actually has developed a substantial following in Brazil thanks to the power of social media … and the reach of Kaká. Head coach Adrian Heath is keen to put on a good performance, even though they will be without Brek Shea and Cyle Larin, in addition to their skipper, because of the World Cup Qualifying window.
“This is something the players may never get the opportunity to do again,” Heath said. “I have been fortunate to play all over the world but I have never played at the Maracanã and am really looking forward to it. When I was a kid, it was the Mecca of football.
“It’s also important for our players, as we have a long break before next season – too long, I think – and this helps to keep the group together for a bit longer.”
Despite the absences, Heath still has a 20-man squad fit and available for the game. And he knows there's one name he can’t leave out of the lineup.
“Yes, we will have to get Pedro on at some stage,” he said. “With the number of people he’s got coming to watch, I think I’ll get lynched if I don’t get him on the field!”