David Dos Santos has a photo of his daughter, Ariana, smiling and holding her thumbs up next to a poster of Pelé. Ariana loves Brazilian soccer as much as she loves her daddy.
“Dad, when we’re home, you can call me Ariana,” she tells her father in the authoritatively adorable way that only 3-year-olds can get away with. “But when I’m playing soccer, you can only call me Neymar.”
The reference to Brazilian soccer star Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior comes naturally to Ariana. Soccer is part of her heritage.
When David was Ariana’s age, he lived in the Sao Paulo state of Brazil. Dos Santos grew up in the city of Palmital, where his family still resides. Dos Santos says he doesn’t hate the U.S., but he does not really feel at home here, either.
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It’s soccer, the World Cup, that gives him a taste of his home country.
Dos Santos will watch Brazil take on Germany in the semifinals on Tuesday. He prefers watching games alone, or with a select few Brazilian friends, through a lens his American friends can’t understand.
Traces of his Portuguese accent remain thick in Dos Santos’ voice. It’s been 12 years since Dos Santos moved to Kansas City at age 19 and became an American citizen, but he remains Brazilian to the core.
“(Palmital) is a small town with a lot of crimes,” he says. “Not a lot of things to do except play soccer.”
Most of Dos Santos’ childhood friends lived on the streets, committing robberies or dealing drugs. Some of them are dead. More of them are in jail. Few of them became professional soccer players.
Dos Santos is one of the lucky ones, and he knows it. Until 2012, he coached a girls soccer team. He named it KC Select Brazil.
Imagine a Kansas City Chiefs game, then multiply it by a thousand. That’s the equation Dos Santos uses to convey the intensity of soccer in Brazil.
But when it comes to the World Cup, Brazilians’ emotions are mixed.
“We want the national team to win,” Dos Santos says, “but we are completely against the World Cup.”
He communicates with his family often and has done so especially during this World Cup. Their pride in the Brazilian national team is palpable, but they also talk of the widespread riots and social unrest disrupting their communities.
Brazilians have protested throughout the World Cup against their government’s decision to tax its citizenry to finance new stadiums. Dos Santos says his family has not been affected directly by the taxation but has suffered ancillary effects, such as rising prices on seemingly everything.
“With that money, you could fix half the country,” Dos Santos says. “Even though we do like soccer a lot, we’re not delusional.”
The apparent corruption angers Alex Lima, too. Lima moved to Kansas City from Santa Catarina, Brazil, in 2007. He was 20 when he began studying at Avila University. Today, he coaches alongside Dos Santos at Soccer Kemistry in Olathe.
“Hate doesn’t describe how bad we feel about the corruption,” Lima says. “But also, passion doesn’t describe how much we support and how proud we are about our national team. We have mixed feelings.”
Dos Santos is asked if pride will replace the pain should Brazil win the championship.
“No,” he says without flinching. “At the beginning of the World Cup, I was like, ‘I want Brazil to lose.’ But when I watch them, I just can’t, because of the passion.
“I know it’s wrong, we know it’s wrong, (but) whenever the game starts, we don’t care about right or wrong. We want to win.”
Lima, too, enjoys the games.
“During the game, for 90 minutes, I let everything go and just become a fan,” he says. “There are ways to protest, but not cheering or feeling pride and joy in times like this isn’t exactly patriotic, in my opinion.
“You don’t take aspirin to cure a stomach ache.”
Dos Santos’ love affair began when he was a little boy, kicking a ball around the battered streets of Sao Paulo.
Lima has played since he was 6. The game changed his life, bringing him to America and allowing him to play for Park University, Johnson County Community College and Avila.
Regardless of the jersey he wore, Lima always played with Brazil in his heart.
“Soccer represents us and brings the best out in us,” he says. “Our national team is part of our culture.”