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His Feet Don't Fail Him Now : Soccer: Paulinho grew up playing the game barefoot in Brazil, now he's wearing cleats and is one of Salsa's top scorers and among the league's most exciting players.

August 03, 1993|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — Two Paulinho milestones--the first time he played soccer on a regulation-size field and the first time he donned a pair of cleats--were reached on the same day in 1976.

Fond memories, these were not.

Paulinho, who like millions of Brazilian youngsters grew up playing soccer barefoot on streets, vacant lots and playgrounds, was 14 at the time. The occasion was a school tournament in his hometown of Criciuma, and the shoes were borrowed.

The Salsa midfielder remembers feeling as awkward as a guy at a beach party in a three-piece suit. It was akin to an American youngster who grew up playing touch football but was suddenly thrust into an organized tackle game, helmet, shoulder pads and all.

"It felt like I had 100 pounds on each foot," Paulinho said through a translator. "And the other goal looked miles away."

Paulinho, whose real name is Paulo Roberto Rocha, had trouble keeping his balance that day. His feet seemed to drag. Many of his passes were off-mark. He didn't come close to scoring.

"I felt terrible," he said.

The feeling didn't last long.

Paulinho probably didn't realize it at the time, but all the skills he mastered in bare feet would eventually translate to cleats.

And the style he perfected in the confined playing areas of his youth would eventually help him on the wide expanses of manicured grass.

Yes, there were many days when young Paulinho came home with bloody feet, from stepping on rocks or broken glass. With street soccer came calluses as tough as a leather soccer ball. And dirt and grime were daily childhood companions of Paulinho's.

But that working-class upbringing in a country so passionate about soccer is the main reason Paulinho is such an effective and entertaining player today.

Playing in bare feet gives you a feel for the ball that you can't get in shoes. Playing on streets, you learn to move the ball in tight spaces with fancy individual moves, touch passes and give-and-go plays.

"Then you go on to a field, and you have all the techniques," said Salsa Coach Rildo Menezes, also a Brazilian.

But the classic Brazilian style Paulinho brings to the Salsa (10-4) is not all flash and flare. It's an energy, an attitude.

Paulinho, 31, has an unbridled love for the sport, born of World Cup champions and heroes such as Pele, in a nation whose collective psyche, at least when he was growing up, seemed to rise and fall with its soccer fortunes.

Paulinho's emotions are as spontaneous as his one-on-one moves. He scored a goal this season at Vancouver and did a dance around the corner-kick marker. After scoring this season at home, he began hugging ballboys and ballgirls.

Fans got such a kick out of that, he has made it his trademark celebration. But it's not like it was choreographed.

"The first time it happened, I don't even remember doing it," said Paulinho, who ranks second among American Professional Soccer League scorers with 21 points (nine goals, three assists). "It was purely spontaneous. I did it again because I wanted to give the kids the same feeling. I've always been very animated because I'm an enthusiastic person, and soccer is what I'm most enthusiastic about."

Paulinho wishes Americans were as excited about the sport. Salsa home crowds have been decent by U.S. standards--an average of about 3,000 a game--but it's nothing like the flag-waving, frenzied scene in Brazil's Maracana Stadium, which attracted crowds in excess of 100,000 for big matches.

"The American public doesn't have a passion for the game," said Paulinho, who returns to action tonight when the Salsa plays Pumas, a First Division team from Mexico, at Cal State Fullerton. "This is a very hero-conscious public, but soccer has no heroes for kids to look up to.

"They're also used to sports where every minute there's a score. In Brazil, if a team wins a soccer game, 6-0, most wouldn't think it was a good game. Here, it would be great because there were six goals."

Paulinho says more Americans will appreciate the game after witnessing next summer's World Cup, but he knows soccer won't take this country by storm, not with all the competition from other traditional U.S. sports.

Just look at Paulinho. In only eight months on U.S. soil, he admits he's hooked on professional basketball. One Sunday he watched four NBA games.

"The NBA is fantastico ," Paulinho said. "Watching a guy like Michael Jordan play is out of the ordinary."

Paulinho once had visions of being as big in Brazil as Jordan is in the United States. His dream was to play pro soccer--"Every Christmas, all I ever wanted was a soccer ball," he said--and that came true in 1980 when he signed with the Criciuma Sport Club team.

The 6-foot, 176-pounder had other Brazilian pro stints with America of Sao Paulo, Bangu of Rio de Janeiro and the legendary Botafogo team, which he led to the Rio State League championship in 1989. But his ultimate dream, the dream of any Brazilian kid playing barefoot in the street, was to play for the national team.

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