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With latest Super Bowl run, Chiefs' would-be dynasty echoes 'Patriot Way'

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With latest Super Bowl run, Chiefs' would-be dynasty echoes 'Patriot Way'

LAS VEGAS — Amid the alcohol and elation, Tedy Bruschi sat there and let it soak in. It was too soon to look ahead, so he went back, spending the three-hour flight replaying the season in his mind.

It was February 2004, the day after the Super Bowl. The plane was a party. The Patriots were flying back from Houston after their second title, a 32-29 win over the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. An embarrassing 31-0 Week 1 loss preceded an improbable run of dominance: just one defeat over the next four months. New England had shown its stunning run two winters prior wasn’t a fluke: this championship, after a 14-2 regular season, cemented the Patriots as the top team of the new century.

Bruschi, a middle linebacker and team captain, hadn’t had a chance to think about the next day, let alone the next season. Then Roman Phifer walked up and left him no choice.

“If we go back-to-back, that’s three of four,” the fellow linebacker told him. “That means they gotta call us a dynasty.”

Bruschi laughs, reliving the moment two decades later. For him, that’s when the Patriots’ pursuit became about more than mere championships. This was about becoming one of the greatest teams that ever played. “Not even a full day had passed since we walked off the field in Houston and we’re talking about the next one,” Bruschi said. “Already, it’s, ‘What does it mean if we do it again? Where does that put us?’

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“Right now, that’s exactly what the Chiefs are playing for.”

The personalities are different. The schemes. The style. But the similarities — above all, sustained success in a league designed to promote parity — are becoming more striking with each year, impossible to ignore as the Chiefs vie for their third title in five seasons Sunday against the 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII. New England reigned over the league for the better part of two decades. Kansas City has since assumed the mantle, and with it, the icy feel of inevitability once the playoffs begin.

The great teams — the iconic teams — simply refuse to go away. And with every title, the target becomes more pronounced.

“You hear people say we’re everybody’s Super Bowl,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “Everybody wants to knock off the top dog. We understand that.”

“That’s what makes it that much sweeter when you beat them,” Bruschi said.

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Five years ago, Tom Brady strolled out of Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium alongside tight end Rob Gronkowski after beating the Chiefs in the AFC Championship. It was a dying dynasty’s last great run. The Patriots would win their sixth and last Super Bowl 14 days later. Brady posted a video on Instagram showing him and Gronkowski shrugging and smiling, Diddy’s lyrics bumping in the background. It was a message for anyone hoping the Patriots were finished.

We ain’t … goin nowhere …

Two weeks ago, during the most unlikely playoff run of his career — a fourth Super Bowl berth clinched after a sloppy regular season and a pair of gutsy playoff wins on the road as the betting underdog — Patrick Mahomes posted four photos from the Chiefs’ AFC title game win in Baltimore. The song playing in the background was familiar.


Among Travis Kelce’s favorite podcasts — aside from his own chart-topping show — is Julian Edelman’s “Games with Names.” The Chiefs tight end listens for what he calls “golden nuggets” from the former Patriots receiver and three-time Super Bowl champ, the stories and scenes that defined New England’s second run of titles in the 2010s.

Kelce wants to know about the moments that built the Patriots’ championship DNA, the ones few hear about and even fewer were there to witness. Some are reassuring, others invigorating, not merely windows into greatness but reminders of the cost of sustaining it. “I’m still learning stuff from those Patriots days,” Kelce said. “It’s awesome to hear it from their point of view.”

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He’s not ready for the comparisons — “(that) was the best football that we’ve ever really seen in the NFL” — but he knows what it’s like when every team wants to dethrone you, when every season ends with either a championship or a flurry of questions about why you came up short.

“The years we haven’t won it since we first won it have felt like the biggest losses of my life,” Kelce says.

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It came up recently in a conversation between Kelce and his quarterback. The more the Chiefs win, Mahomes said, the more he’s grown to appreciate what the Patriots did before them. “To come back, be in this many Super Bowls, and to continue to get every team’s best shot and continue to get better and better and win more, it’s tough,” Mahomes said. “It’s hard.”

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Which is why Kelce, 11 years into his career, Hall of Fame gold jacket assured, has decided a win Sunday would mean more than the previous two. It’s the same reason Roman Phifer pointed out to Bruschi on the Patriots’ plane 20 years ago. This championship would move the Chiefs into a different conversation.

He knows it’s been two full decades since a Super Bowl champ successfully defended its title. He also knows who that team was.

“I want this one more than I’ve ever wanted a Super Bowl in my life,” Kelce admitted this week. “Because that tier of teams that have done it twice (in a row) have gone down in history as some of the greats.”


“Sometimes, I have to pinch myself,” Joe Thuney said.

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The offensive lineman spent the first five years of his career with Brady in New England, winning two Super Bowl rings. He signed with the Chiefs in free agency after the 2020 season and added another ring last winter.

Just as the Patriots’ run ended, the Chiefs’ began. Thuney says players in New England could feel it, especially after an epic conference championship game in 2019. Kansas City was coming, and once they arrived, the Chiefs weren’t likely to stumble back to mediocrity. Not with Mahomes at quarterback and Andy Reid at head coach.

“It starts at the top, with great leadership like Coach Reid and players like Patrick who are truly about the team,” Thuney said. “There’s no magic drills or practices. It’s the boring details we pay attention to.”


Under Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs’ championship run began just as the Patriots’ dominance waned. (Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images)

Both teams came to define the eras in which they dominated. At their best, the Patriots were a reflection of inscrutable head coach Bill Belichick — rigid, unrelenting and stunningly consistent. Their success almost became boring. For 20 years, they were the AFC’s immovable object. So many promising seasons in Indianapolis, Baltimore and Pittsburgh died in Foxboro.

Really, there were two separate Patriots dynasties linked by Belichick’s brilliance and Brady’s dependability, Bruschi said, each netting three titles within a five-year window. The run in the early 2000s was anchored by an all-time defense, a unit that allowed Brady time to grow into one of the game’s greats for the second spate of championships.

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“Tom was responsible for one touchdown with his arm in the 2001 playoffs,” Bruschi notes. “We were sort of bringing him along. He had to take care of the football and manage the game. The moment I noticed something special in him was the second half of the Panthers Super Bowl (two years later). From that point, we were off and running.

“Mahomes is sort of going backward. It’s the reverse of what we did. He won the MVP his first year as the starter. He’s been carrying that team on his back like Tom did later in his career in New England.”

Bruschi’s right. The Chiefs were sparked by their franchise QB’s immediate ascent. In the age of wildly gifted, mobile passers, no one does it better than Mahomes. Paired with Reid, among the most innovative play-callers in league history, they’ve formed a tandem the rest of the NFL has come to envy.

Brady’s Patriots vs. Mahomes’ Chiefs

Patriots Chiefs

Seasons

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18*

6

Regular-season record (win percentage)

221-70 (76%)

65-24 (73%)

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Playoff record (win percentage)

30-11 (73%)

14-3 (82%)

AFC Championship Game appearances

13

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6

Super Bowl appearances

9

4

Super Bowl wins

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6

2

*Brady played in just one game during his rookie season in 2000 and missed the 2008 season due to injury.

Both franchises fought the forces that derail potential dynasties: injuries, ego, the weight of increased expectations, the pillaging of talented assistants, the mental toll of advancing deep in the playoffs year after year, plus a salary cap constructed to limit great teams from continuing to pay all their great players.

Both had to make cold, calculated decisions along the way. Belichick famously cut starting safety Lawyer Milloy after training camp in 2003, a surprise move that foreshadowed a flurry of high-profile exits during his tenure — defensive lineman Richard Seymour, linebacker Willie McGinest and receiver Wes Welker among them. Two years ago, the Chiefs traded away the best receiver in football, Tyreek Hill, and used the capital they received in return to build up what’s become a punishing defense.

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“There’s a tendency to have a letdown after you’ve won a championship, after you’ve chased something for a long time,” Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said after Kansas City’s first Super Bowl win in 2020. “That will be our challenge.”

They’ve met it, reaching the game three times in the four years since and adding another Lombardi Trophy to their collection last winter. And in one major difference from the Patriots, the Chiefs have done so unstained by on-field scandals. Spygate cost New England a first-round pick and a $250,000 fine (Belichick was also personally fined a league-maximum $500,000). Less than a decade later, Deflategate cost Brady a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season.

The Patriots grew into the NFL’s leading villains, loathed by fans across the league. Belichick’s biting news conferences and ominous sideline presence — signature grey hoodie pulled tight, never a smile in sight — didn’t help. The Chiefs have been a departure, buoyed by Mahomes’ childlike energy, Kelce’s frat bro likability and Reid’s amiable leadership.

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As the spotlight expanded, headlines have come off the field, too. Brady and Gisele Bundchen dated and married during the Patriots’ dynasty; New England kept winning.

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This season, the Chiefs have experienced an entirely different crush of attention. Asked this week about the added scrutiny that comes with dating the most famous woman in the world, Kelce smiled.

“I feel like it’s only given me more energy,” he said.


Bruschi said his Patriots teams never wore down late in the season because that’s all they knew. The payoff came in the little moments under the bright lights.

He saw the same thing in last month’s AFC Championship Game.

The Ravens were the conference’s top seed, 4.5-point favorites and playing at home, anxious to unseat the champs. Then they melted down.

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“One team looked like it had been there before,” Bruschi said. “That was the Chiefs.”

By game’s end, Baltimore committed eight penalties to Kansas City’s three. In one telling moment, Ravens linebacker Kyle Van Noy — a former Patriot no less — headbutted Kelce, who’d been yapping all game. A flag flew. Kelce laughed.

“That’s when I was like, ‘This is done,’” Bruschi said. “These (Ravens) guys, these veterans, were acting out of their minds. Sometimes teams just lose it in big games.”

Standing on the sideline that day, Blaine Gabbert, Mahomes’ backup, saw the Chiefs take a page out of Brady’s old playbook. Gabbert sat behind Brady in Tampa Bay late in Brady’s career and remembers his message to the Bucs before playoff games: “If you take it to them, the inexperienced teams will break.”

“You saw that very clearly last week in Baltimore, not only in the way they played but the way the fans reacted,” Gabbert said. “It was a hostile environment and we just smiled as we walked off. We took it to them in their own house. They asked for something, they got it, and that’s the way it goes.”

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Bruschi, like so many others, had his doubts about the Chiefs as their lackluster regular season came to a close. Then their playoff run reminded him of something.

“Here’s the secret: When winning championships is in your blood, you just don’t panic, no matter what’s going on,” he said. “If your character’s being questioned, if your teammates are struggling, if somebody’s not getting it right, if Travis Kelce’s dropping the football — nothing makes you panic.

“You just let the other teams do that.”


In February 2005, a year after they won that Super Bowl in Houston, the Patriots defended their title, beating the Eagles 24-21. They remain the last group to go back-to-back. After the celebration, a handful of players, including Brady and Bruschi, flew to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.

Before the game, the AFC spaced out player introductions by team. Those who didn’t make the playoffs went first, then came those bounced in the wild-card round. Then the divisional round. Then the conference championship. Finally, it was the Patriots’ turn. The players looked around. The locker room was almost empty. Six of them remained. Brady huddled the group together.

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“You know what guys?” he told them. “No one’s ever won three in a row.”

“I still had confetti on the bottom of my cleats from the Super Bowl, but that’s how that team thought,” Bruschi said. “And I guarantee you if the Chiefs get this one on Sunday, they’ll start thinking about the exact same thing.”

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Katelyn Mulcahy, Tom Pennington, Cooper Neill, Ronald Martinez, Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

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Toronto tall tales of Zach Edey: On the ice, the diamond … and 'What's a Purdue?'

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Toronto tall tales of Zach Edey: On the ice, the diamond … and 'What's a Purdue?'

TORONTO – Head north out of downtown on Bayview Avenue and past the shops and bars in Leaside, plus four Tim Hortons. Cross a bridge and climb a hill and there’s Crescent School, a private all-boys institution opened in 1913. It’s closed for winter break, but a courtyard plaque points to reception. A groundskeeping vehicle is parked in front and a delivery guy walks out. Somewhere inside lies another story about how the impossibility of Zach Edey came to be. Another tall tale.

So it’s worth a knock on the door.

After an introduction to Sal the maintenance guy and an explanation for the visit, it’s a stroll down some stairs and into the Lower School. Pencil sketches and old team pictures hang in the hallway. Straight ahead? A basketball gym. Where an anomaly came into view.

Edey is, of course, currently the 7-foot-4, 300-pound All-American anchor for second-ranked Purdue. But he’s also the kid who dreamed of being a hockey defenseman. The preteen who stumbled into a stellar youth baseball career. The high school sophomore who learned basketball shooting form by balancing a water bottle on a clipboard. The quiet Toronto boy who left home for an academy in Florida, who ranked 436th in his recruiting class and who now likely will repeat as national player of the year. The star who should not be.

Here, in a space with green bleachers and the words RESPECT, RESPONSIBILITY and HONESTY ringing the floor, is where the last part started.

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Edey’s local club team was practicing at Crescent School, right before a tryout for the high-profile Northern Kings AAU program. Vidal Massiah, the Kings’ director, had been tipped off by his sister about a giant roaming area courts, and Massiah came to see for himself. After Edey’s two ensuing workouts with the Kings, his mother asked for a verdict. Massiah was blunt.

He’s an NBA player. Get ready for this movie.

“His story is a Canadian story,” Massiah says, driving away from the school on a sunny but wind-whipped winter morning. “It only happens here.”

Chapter 1: On the ice

Chesswood Arena sits in an industrial park in North York, abutting train tracks and sharing a parking lot with a garage door company and luggage wholesalers, among others. It was built in the 1950s. Still looks like it, too, and gloriously so. Weather and time have stripped away most of the color on a tower sign next to the entrance. The building marquee itself features three rows of hand-set letters.

WELCO ME TOCHESSWOODARENA, the top row reads.

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This is the home of the top-level, triple-A Toronto Red Wings youth hockey program – “A tradition since 1955,” according to a banner – but it contains four NHL-sized rinks with ads for Dr. Flea’s Flea Market and Little Pearls pediatric dentistry. Golden Glide Hockey operates from a modest space tucked next to a synthetic ice surface on the second floor. Sometime in 2010, word arrived about a massive 8-year-old kid playing house league hockey in Leaside. He was raw, but no one could get around him. Al Rourke, a former NHL defenseman coaching the Toronto Penguins team via Golden Glide, said to bring the kid out for a look.

In walked Zach Edey, a shade under 6 feet at the time. “I said right away, ‘You’re on the team,’” Rourke says, sitting at a desk with a wall of Post-it notes to his left. “I also told his parents, ‘You should put a basketball in his hands.’”

Not a directive young Toronto boys follow easily. Coach, he loves hockey, is all Rourke heard from Julia and Glen Edey. He shrugged. The kid was polite. Always on time. And while he probably wasn’t quick enough for triple-A competition, Zach Edey was plenty good at double-A, if only because a very long arm held a very long stick and could stop a rush with one poke.

So he was a hockey player. Who scared everyone.


Zach Edey was taller than his coaches even as a preteen. (Courtesy of Julia Edey via Purdue)

By Edey’s third year, he was taller than his 30-something coach, and that was before lacing up skates. “They see him walk in, and other teams would be like, ‘What is happening? We gotta play against this guy?’” Rourke says. Size, though, became more of a source of humor or frustration than an asset. Early on, Glen Edey asked Rourke, who was listed as a 6-2, 215-pound blueliner during his playing days, if he had any old skates he could pass down, since Zach was already in men’s sizes. Rourke brought in a top-end pair, and the next day, Glen returned them.

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“Al, he can’t wear these,” Zach’s father told the coach.

“Glen, these are professional skates,” Rourke replied. “These are good f—— skates.”

That wasn’t it, Glen assured him. “They don’t fit.”

Likewise, Edey’s elbows weren’t where most people’s elbows were. So while Rourke coached Edey to keep his arms tight and ride an offensive player off the puck – checking wasn’t permitted yet when Edey started with the Penguins – the slightest flinch meant connecting with an opponent’s head and a trip to the penalty box. “Even if a kid runs into him, he’d get a penalty for elbowing or interference or something stupid when it’s not his fault,” Rourke says. “He’s just way bigger.”

But if you’re looking for reasons Edey has uncommon skill and so swiftly picked up the pace on the court, maybe start on the ice. “You got all this stuff going on and you have guys trying to knock your head off at the same time,” says Steve Taylor, one of Edey’s close friends’ father, who coached both boys in middle-school club hockey. “Comparatively speaking, hockey feels way more frenzied. … And, physically, the lower-body strength along with the coordination – I don’t think there’s anything you could do that’s better (training).”

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Baseball soon became the next dominant passion, and though Edey continued to play some hockey, he mostly outgrew it – though not before one memorable shift.

One night, the Penguins’ starting goalie was sick. So Rourke dispatched Zach Edey into the net against the best double-A team in the area. He gave up six or seven scores, as his coach recalls, though watching Edey drop into a butterfly, with pucks careening off him, still gives Rourke a chuckle.

He notes, in fact, that NHL rules permit goalies of a certain size to wear larger and bulkier gear. “Imagine him in a net right now?” Rourke says. “Wouldn’t be a bad play.”

Chapter 2: On the diamond

The Edeys arrived for a youth soccer event to find 80 or 90 baseball players scattered about Oriole Park, a small collection of tennis courts and playgrounds with one dirt diamond. This was a tryout for North Toronto travel baseball, looking to fill three new entry-level teams. To bide time, the family sat at a picnic table in deep right field. They were out of the way but not enough to go unnoticed. Soon, one of the baseball parent-coaches running the workout jogged over and inquired about the boy who looked a foot taller than everyone else.

Zach Edey was, in fact, 8.

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“Your kid is playing baseball,” Jeff Wolburg declared.

No, no, Julia Edey insisted. They were there for soccer.

Wolburg was unmoved. He coaxed Zach into joining his group, handed him a glove and ran Edey through drills for the next two or three hours. It was the first time Edey played the sport. Wolburg put him on the 8U roster anyway. The Edeys once again protested. After three or four days of phone calls, Wolburg’s buying the kid a jersey with his name on it and promising Glen Edey an assistant coaching spot, the family relented. North Toronto had a new first baseman. Who showed up at tryouts planning to play soccer. “And five years later, (Julia) always came back to that one story,” Wolburg recalls. “‘You brought me into this life!’”


Zach Edey showed up for a soccer tryout but found himself on a baseball team. (Courtesy of Julia Edey via Purdue)

A limited future on the ice made hockey fairly easy to leave behind. But Zach Edey was good at baseball. Really good. By the time he was competing for the Leaside Leafs as a 13- and 14-year-old, he was throwing 70 to 75 miles per hour and occasionally launching balls over the left field fence at Talbot Park and onto bustling Eglinton Avenue. Playing college baseball in the United States wasn’t a wild fantasy.

When Edey stopped at the 15U level, Wolburg thought it was a mistake. “He was a very shy, introverted kid, and baseball brought out a different side of him,” Wolburg says. “It was like a different life. Going to school, nobody would talk to him, he’d be reading in the corner somewhere. But playing sports? In baseball, he was on just a crazy upward scale of getting better and better. He loved that feeling of hitting. This giant kid, just smashing the s— out of the ball.”

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He also admits he hadn’t been paying attention to the other sport entering Edey’s life.

The boy, it turns out, had another foot to grow. And someone finally put a basketball in his hands.

Baseball, then, was a dress rehearsal for what came after on the court: Rudimentary instruction and a growth curve accelerated by Edey’s underrated athleticism and unrelenting curiosity.

He was planted at first base due to his preposterous wing span and an easy task: Catch everything. At the plate, his instructions were similarly plain: Crush the ball. There was plenty of swing-and-miss, particularly with a bat path that was more like taking an ax to a tree stump. But woe to those on the field when Edey connected.

“He probably injured, I’d say, 15 kids along the way,” Wolburg says. “Not on purpose, obviously. They just got in the way. If they didn’t catch the ball cleanly, it would hit them in the knee or the chest or sometimes the head. And it would hurt.”

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Refinement came with age and an inquisitive mind. “His baseball IQ was top of the charts,” Wolburg says. On the mound, that meant less reliance strictly on fastballs and exploring how to get more spin on pitches and how to throw a proper changeup. Edey took hitting lessons from a premier local instructor. He was devoted to a future on the diamond. His size, essentially, detoured him again. But not before everyone could see who Zach Edey might be. While he plays college basketball with a mercilessness– and while it serves him and Purdue well – there’s a gentility at his core, too.

During one 12U baseball game, Edey drilled a batter in the arm. The kid dropped to the dirt in agony. Coaches and parents rushed to his aid.

After 10 minutes or so, the umpire approached Wolburg.

“Coach,” he said, “you had better go look at the mound.”

Wolburg turned. Zach Edey was sitting in the dirt, crying his eyes out.

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“He was upset for days after that,” Wolburg says.

Chapter 3: On the court

Before ninth grade, Magnus Taylor decided he wanted to play basketball. Steve Taylor, who played some university-level hoops himself, was thrilled by his son’s news. Thus the North Toronto Huskies were breathed into life. There was one imperative, though: They had to get Magnus’ good friend Zach.

For about 30 or 40 minutes one afternoon, Steve Taylor sat with his son and the extremely large human they’d known since preschool and explained the plan. He asked Zach Edey if he’d like to join his team.

Edey said no.

The next fall, with another season approaching, and with Edey having dabbled in high school hoops, Taylor revisited the conversation. The pitch lasted about an hour. He invited Edey. Again.

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Edey said no. Again.

This time? Taylor had a backup idea. He suggested Edey join a Huskies practice, if only to get in shape for baseball. Edey agreed. Taylor told his wife to find the largest available jersey and order it. He picked up Edey and drove him to his first workout with the Huskies, on a Tuesday night at Crescent School. It happened to be a night the regular players were … not great. Taylor lost his patience. He ran his team. Hard. At one point, he looked over at the giant teenager galloping from end to end and gasping for air and it occurred to him: I blew it.

Halfway through the drive home, crammed into the passenger seat of an Audi, Edey delivered his review.

These basketball practices? Way more fun than baseball practices.

Two nights later, Edey stood on the Taylors’ porch, ready to go.

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“We had to almost trick him into it, but once he got the bug, man, he never looked back,” Taylor says. “It says a lot about him, too – we ran the kids into the ground that Tuesday night. And he never complained. … He saw he had work to do, and he started doing the work.”

Edey had to learn proper basketball, all the way down to balancing that water bottle on a clipboard for 10 minutes before practices, to get his elbow cocked correctly. But there’s growth, and there are beanstalks shooting through clouds. Edey fixed a right-to-left swipe on his follow-through in one workout. He played in a country-wide All-Star game by December.

Moving Edey from a club hoops startup into a youth basketball flume required only a couple more twists: Vidal Massiah’s sister showed up for her son Elijah’s high school game. She saw a monstrous Leaside High center at the free-throw line. She snapped a picture and sent it to her brother. After the game, Massiah’s other nephew, Ethan, collected Edey’s contact info. “My uncle is going to help you a lot,” Ethan told him.


Last year’s national player of the year began playing organized basketball in high school. (Photo courtesy of Julia Edey via Purdue)

Once the Edeys returned the calls, the assistant coaches headed out to scout. Their feedback was the same: They just weren’t sure.

“No one saw it,” Massiah says.

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Then the Northern Stars director walked into the Crescent School gym. He sat with Glen Edey in the bleachers and probed a man-child’s athletic history. He watched a neophyte change ends well for his size. He saw a patient approach at the free-throw line and surprising touch for a kid whose experience could be measured in months. He thought about the time he guarded Yao Ming.

He asked himself: What will this look like in a couple years?

“All the positives were more in the vein of, he’s an athlete, at the end of the day,” Massiah says. “He doesn’t have these particular skills because he hasn’t trained in this sport. That was it. It was easy to understand. The skills can be taught.”

Edey split time with the two club teams – Taylor knew the Kings would provide exposure he couldn’t – and it was another beginning. Edey had to relearn things in the context of highly competitive basketball with highly skilled teammates.

The Kings coaches started with passing, because they knew defenders would be flying at Edey and he had to be confident in his decisions. His offensive repertoire was limited to working from the left block and going to his right hand; if he was on the right block, he wasn’t getting the ball.

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To understand defensive timing, Edey analogized it to the angles he’d take as a hockey defenseman, and Massiah nodded along. “That’s what this is,” the coach replied, emphasizing how Edey had to beat opponents to spots to recover without fouling. By Edey’s second year, he understood the offense thoroughly enough that the Kings ran sets through him. “His ability to process information and implement coaching was through the roof,” Massiah says. “Every question was a good question.”

Days before Canada Basketball convened a 2018 tryout for its world championship teams, Michael Meeks received a text message. Massiah had a really tall kid the organization had to see, which was truer than he knew: Meeks, an assistant general manager for sports performance, had been looking for Zach Edey for a while. He’d walk into a gym and miss the kid by an hour, or pick the wrong day to see a game. But now here the myth was, in the flesh, at last.

“I’m like, ‘It’s the unicorn,’” Meeks says.

Edey was far too raw to make a roster. But the first impression was a thunderbolt. “One thing I immediately saw, that put him way ahead of even tall kids his age, was his hands,” Meeks says. “He had the softest touch around the basket. His form looked great. He didn’t mind contact. I knew then he was going to be special. Like, special.”

Zach Edey wouldn’t be that hard to find, ever again.

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He left the low ceiling of Leaside basketball behind and enrolled at IMG Academy in 2018. He went from the B team to consensus All-American and national college player of the year in five seasons. He might be a first-round NBA Draft pick after six, having backed up his breakout junior year by averaging 23.7 points and 11.8 rebounds and, as of Monday, leading the nation in Win Shares (7.2) on a Final Four contender. Given that Team Canada has qualified for the Summer Olympics,  Edey is a decent bet to be in Paris if whatever pro franchise drafts him is amenable. Everyone is running out of questions.

There’s just one more worth reliving, as he moves front and center for one more run at deliverance in March.

As Edey’s basketball future crystallized, his coaches discussed possible American college destinations. Massiah brought up a school in the Midwest with a long history of developing big men.

Purdue, Massiah suggested, could be an ideal fit.

As usual, Zach Edey wanted more info.

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“What’s a Purdue?” he asked.

(Illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Jeffrey Brown / Icon Sportswire; courtesy of Julia Edey via Purdue)

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The USWNT mystique is gone – at some point, they either step up or they don't

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The USWNT mystique is gone – at some point, they either step up or they don't

For those who weren’t following along during the 2011 World Cup qualifying cycle — in which the U.S. lost to Mexico in the CONCACAF semifinals before Alex Morgan finally sent the U.S. through in a playoff series against Italy — matches against Mexico might have felt like a rivalry in name only.

The U.S. women’s national team had not lost to Mexico since that moment in 2010, and hadn’t lost to any CONCACAF opponent at home since 2000.

Monday night threw that narrative out the window.

The USWNT was outplayed in a 2-0 loss in front of a boisterous crowd in Carson, Ca., and while it didn’t match the low of that 0-0 draw against Portugal in the World Cup group stage last summer, the team’s final group stage match of this Gold Cup was (hopefully) a helpful reminder that the team hasn’t found their new, cohesive identity just yet.

The thing that should worry fans the most is how Monday’s performance was a reflection of the listless USWNT we’ve seen before.

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But how much should we read into the 270 minutes played this year? How much does a loss change what needs to happen ahead of the Olympics? And why is cohesion still such a massive problem?


Mexico provided a necessary test — and a reminder

Mexico deserves full credit and nothing but praise for executing on Monday night in all the places that matter. But by the same token, the USWNT failed in many of those areas.

That failure can be helpful if used correctly (see: losses to France in friendlies at the start of 2015 and 2019, both of which were followed by World Cup titles). However, that’s been the takeaway for this U.S. team for a while now. At some point, the players and coaching staff either step up or they don’t.

What did the U.S. hierarchy want to get out of these games? If there was ever a time to let the team’s young players problem-solve in a difficult situation, it was on Monday night, down 1-0 to Mexico after the first half and with plenty of unproven talent on the field. Let them be tested. Let them fail, even! Instead, 34-year-old, 217-capped Morgan came on after the break. That doesn’t tell interim head coach Twila Kilgore or the incoming Emma Hayes anything about this team right now.


Morgan came on against Mexico (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The USWNT mystique is gone, and the rising level of the rest of the world is only part of the story. The players used to wield their collective reputation and mentality as both sword and shield — it told them something about themselves, and something about every other team they faced. Without it, they have lost a weapon and something more symbolic.

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Leaning into an old-fashioned underdog mentality might be the play, as ridiculous as it may sound considering the U.S. is still ranked No. 2 in the world by world governing body FIFA. There has been plenty written on the USWNT’s lack of joy since those very strange Tokyo Olympics, but less focus on a possible flip side: harnessing the anger for good as it sits in joy’s place.

With a generational shift underway, younger players who are hungry for recognition and results should take any emotional advantage they can find.

First though, they have to get onto the field.


Why is cohesion still such a massive problem?

It’s worth remembering that this Gold Cup is the USWNT’s first camp of the year, and that it’s still preseason for the large chunk of this roster that plays domestically in the NWSL. That’s not necessarily an excuse for the cohesion issues that plagued the USWNT on Monday, but it is at least helpful context, along with the massive rotation in personnel that’s happened through the group stage.

Center back Naomi Girma feels like the key to solving this problem, immediately and in the long term. Though it’s understandable to want to manage her load, Girma has already ascended to the tier of player that you need on the field at all times. She’s been through a World Cup now too — and was the USWNT’s best player in New Zealand and Australia by a very comfortable margin.

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Girma facing Argentina (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“Something tonight that was missing was just a bit of bravery from the center backs and willingness to play forward,” Kilgore said postgame. “Regardless of how many numbers we have in front of the backline, the expectation is that we look to play forward passes, that we keep the ball moving, and of course that sometimes requires a balance and it comes back, but we do want to play forward.”

If the team’s identity is built upon playing out of the back, it feels like having your best defender — a 23-year-old who the team will build around for the next decade — on the field for the toughest group-stage match would have been a more effective use of Girma than pairing her with Tierna Davidson against Argentina.

USWNT defender Kelley O’Hara said on Monday that the team had sometimes been “stuck” within certain formations and tactics over the past couple of years, and the performance against Mexico had the same feel as some of the team’s more frustrating recent performances. On a night like Monday, it feels like the USWNT is clinging to the very identity they need to shed, and some beautiful principles of play that are great in theory and sometimes need to go out the window when a game calls for it.

It’s impossible to know from the outside if the coaching situation is playing a role here — everything coming from the team (publicly, at least) is that communication from Hayes and Kilgore has been excellent and everyone understands the plan until Hayes arrives from Chelsea in May.

Hayes not being present until then isn’t ideal on a number of fronts, but it’s simply a fact the USWNT must deal with. The federation made this agreement, and now the team is dealing with the ramifications of playing under an interim head coach stationed a continent away a few months before a major tournament. It’s not ideal and it’s not something that can be changed.

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How much can we read into starting XIs and playing time?

The answer for me is still: “Not much at all.” But so you can see the three games side-by-side, here are the line-ups…

Rotation was promised by Kilgore, and she delivered. With the media after Monday’s game, she bristled a bit at a question about whether that rotation had backfired.

“The whole group is prepared to play,” she answered. “The whole group was prepared to play tonight. We could have gone with several options, and this was the group that we chose. I’m very confident that the group is capable of executing.”

Kilgore said that it was important for all players to have opportunities in this tournament, but also important for the team to execute.

“It’s not just about partnerships, it’s about systems, roles and responsibilities,” she said.

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From my vantage point outside the privileged bubble of the USWNT technical staff, the Gold Cup still feels like the right place for experimentation, evaluation and rotation. But if you’re going to do it, you have to actually commit.

(Top photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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'They would have been angry if we had won' – The tiny Brazilian club who fooled North Korea

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'They would have been angry if we had won' – The tiny Brazilian club who fooled North Korea

Everyone seems to have a slightly different estimate of how many people were outside the stadium on that strange November afternoon, but the consensus is that it was a lot.

As the bus crept through the crowd, the Brazilian footballers on board stared out of the windows. Locals — tens of thousands of them, on some accounts — flooded the streets. Most greeted the bus with diffident waves. A few ran alongside, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone they would not have recognised anyway.

An hour later, those same footballers walked through a long underground tunnel, up a flight of stairs and out onto the pitch. They lined up in front of the dugout and sang Brazil’s national anthem.

The match that began moments thereafter took place in 2009, but you would never know it from the photographs. There is an austere, monochrome quality to the images, and not just because they were captured on a basic digital camera. There are no advertising hoardings and none of the other hypercapitalist trappings that adorn the modern game. As a result, it looks a lot like pre-war football.

Then there are the stands, which are packed but oddly lifeless; these appear to be spectators rather than supporters. There is also a jarring uniformity to them, which starts to make sense once the context becomes clear.

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One picture, taken before kick-off, shows an outmoded electronic scoreboard. It reads “PRK 0-0 BRA”. That’s North Korea vs Brazil.

The game was played in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. The home team represented the most closed-off nation in the world, a military dictatorship which has been shrouded in mystery for decades. The away team? That’s where things get even more complicated.

North Korea hosting Brazil at the Kim Il-Sung Stadium would have been a major geopolitical event. You would have heard about it if it had happened, which it didn’t.

But something even more unlikely did.

The team billed as ‘Brazil’ were, in fact, a tiny club side from a satellite town 80 kilometres north west of Sao Paulo. Theirs was a squad of journeymen and part-timers, none of whom could believe their eyes when they walked out of the tunnel and looked up at the scoreboard.

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“It was clear that the North Korean regime wanted the word ‘Brazil’ to appear there,” says Waldir Cipriani, one of the organisers of the match. “But we were just a Brazilian team who wore yellow.”


The Reverend

Fifteen years ago, there were two football teams in Sorocaba. The most historic was Sao Bento, whose greatest claim to fame was reaching the last 16 of the Brazilian championship back in 1979.

Their neighbours, Atletico Sorocaba, had only been around since the early 1990s and had never made it higher than the third division nationally. Their matches — low-level affairs in the regional leagues, mainly — rarely drew more than a couple of thousand fans.

If the very notion of a Brazilian club team landing an away fixture against North Korea seems a bit far-fetched, the idea of that team being Atletico Sorocaba… well, we’re so far into the realm of the absurd that we’re going to need a map to get out again. That, though, is exactly what happened.


Atletico Sorocaba, in red, take on Palmeiras in the 2013 Sao Paulo state championship (Eduardo Efrain/LatinContent via Getty Images)

To understand how and why, we need to go back to the early 2000s when Atletico were acquired by a South Korean investment group led by Sun Myung Moon — or, to his friends and followers, ‘Reverend Moon’.

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Moon was the founder of the Unification Church, a religious movement that stressed the importance of the family and proclaimed Moon himself to be the second coming of Christ. To call the church controversial would be to undersell it; the ‘Criticisms’ section of its Wikipedia page runs to 7,000 words. Moon, who died in 2012, was found guilty of tax fraud by a United States federal grand jury in 1982, spending 13 months in prison.

Atletico Sorocaba was not Moon’s first incursion into Brazil. After growing disenchanted with the U.S. — “the country that represents Satan’s harvest… the kingdom of extreme individuality, of free sex” — he acquired 85,000 hectares of land in Mato Grosso do Sul state in the 1990s. He planned to create a model community in the town of Jardim, on the border with Paraguay. According to news reports in Brazil, thousands of South Koreans relocated to the region at his behest.

As the Unification Church expanded, Sorocaba — around 100km from Sao Paulo and with a population of around a million — was seen as a useful staging post. It was Cipriani, a prominent figure within the church structure in Brazil, who recommended that Moon buy Atletico. Cipriani subsequently became the club’s vice president.

“Reverend Moon invested in football because he had a vision,” Cipriani tells The Athletic. “He believed that football was the cure for human hatred. He used to say that you forget about your enemy when you’re running after a ball. That was why he wanted to promote it.

“He especially liked the characteristics of Brazilian football — the playfulness, the love of dribbling. He believed that Brazilian football would help him. He saw it as a force for peace.”

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Whatever Moon’s motivations, he could not be accused of thinking small. His largesse allowed Atletico to renovate their training complex and the result was so impressive that Algeria would later choose it as their base for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Atletico would play numerous games in South Korea over the years, despite their relative irrelevance on their own domestic scene.

North Korea, though? That was another level entirely. No team from outside the Asian Football Confederation had ever played there.

Atletico Sorocaba opening that door owed, mainly, to two factors. The first was North Korea’s qualification for the 2010 World Cup. A team that had had little motivation to leave its bubble in 43 years — their previous World Cup appearance had been in 1966 — now needed a crash course in the global game.

“North Korea were interested in getting experience of Latin American football,” explains Cipriani. “There was this pressure from the government, who wanted the team to do well at the tournament. The team performing well was going to be good for the country.

“This was just one month before the final draw. They had been trying to organise friendlies, but which other country was going to go to the effort of going to North Korea, sorting out all the visas, for 90 minutes of football?”

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Enter Moon, whose background provided motive and opportunity. Moon was born in 1920 in what would become North Korea. He was imprisoned in a North Korean labour camp for two years in 1948, only moving to South Korea after being liberated by United Nations troops during the Korean War. As a result of his experiences, Moon was staunchly opposed to communism — “especially atheistic Marxism,” says Cipriani — but still cultivated links with Kim Il-sung, the supreme leader of North Korea between 1948 and 1994.


The Reverend Sun Myung Moon (left) speaks at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1974 (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

“I learnt the essence of Christianity from him,” says Cipriani. “People speak a lot about loving your enemy, but you have to put it into practice. His teaching was to love your enemy, but hate the thing that makes him your enemy — love the ill, hate the illness. Reverend Moon was anti-communism, but not anti-communist.

“When Reverend Moon went to Pyongyang, it was after being invited by Kim Il-sung, who had spent 40 years trying to kill him. Before he died, Kim Il-sung authorised Reverend Moon to build a car factory and acquire a five-star hotel (in North Korea). So in practice, due to that relationship, we had great contacts in the North Korean ministry of sport.”

Those connections bore fruit in 2009, against a favourable diplomatic backdrop.

“Brazil was in a honeymoon period with North Korea,” says Cipriani. “Lula da Silva (Brazil’s president at the time) had opened an embassy there earlier in the year and the ambassador liked socialism. We never discussed it because he showed us a lot of hospitality. We left out the politics and the ideology. Our objectives were sporting and diplomatic. We were there to build bridges. That was Reverend Moon’s aim.”

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It is impossible to know whether Moon’s opportunism was truly in service of improved relations between North Korea and South Korea, or merely part of a wider strategy for himself and his church. Either way, it was adventure time for Atletico Sorocaba. They were heading to Pyongyang.


Black-and-white city

“I didn’t even know there were two different Koreas,” Leandro Silva says with a grin.

Silva was 21 years old in 2009. He was Atletico Sorocaba’s right-back, one of a handful of players who had come through the youth ranks at the club. “Simple lads,” Cipriani calls them.

Initially, Atletico’s players did not know they were going to North Korea. The plan was to play games in China and South Korea, a fun little jaunt that would help them prepare for the 2010 season. The news that they might be taking a detour came late in the day; they were already in Beijing by the time their visas were finally approved.

“Enchanting, a novelty,” is how Cipriani describes the chance to go to Pyongyang, but not everyone was quite so animated by the prospect.

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“My first reaction was one of shock and fear,” recalls Silva. “I tried to find out a bit about North Korea but I could only see bad news. Poverty, lack of freedom, food shortages… everyone said it was a country at war, heavily armed.

“I thought about what it would mean to be there when something happened. I thought about my family. They (club officials) explained everything to the players but we were worried.”

The journey to Pyongyang did not exactly settle the nerves. “We set off from China on this aeroplane… this ugly, scruffy, old thing,” says Silva. “You can’t imagine how bad it was. There were suitcases rattling around in the back and others strapped to the roof outside. The plane bounced and wobbled the whole way.”

Cipriani remembers Edu Marangon, Atletico’s coach, being so scared he could barely speak. The team masseur, Sidnei Gramatico, summed up the situation in an interview with GloboEsporte: “Have you ever seen an aeroplane stuck together with superglue? I have.”

A frosty reception awaited them at the airport. “Soldiers everywhere… it felt like you were arriving at a concentration camp,” Marangon told Record TV. “It was like we had taken a space shuttle to another planet.”

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The players and staff were asked to hand over their electronic devices. Mobile phones were confiscated and put into storage at the airport; laptops and cameras were inspected as if they were bombs.

From the airport, the delegation boarded a bus. Destination: Mansu Hill, home of a 22-metre-high statue of Kim Il-sung. It was the first of a series of excursions to important North Korean cultural sites, organised by the dictatorship. “Our itinerary there was decided down to the last millimetre,” says Cipriani. “Every part of the trip was organised.”


The Atletico travelling party at a statue of Kim Il-sung (Waldir Cipriani, Atletico Sorocaba)

That first drive through Pyongyang left a mark on Silva. “It was like something from a film about the old days,” he says. “You know those period dramas on Netflix, with vintage cars? It was like that, a black-and-white city. There was no colour there.

“There were men crouched down on their haunches, smoking cigarettes. There were people working on plantations and no kids out playing. You could see in people’s faces that their lives were dedicated to work. It was very regimented and very grim. What we saw was a real dictatorship.”

The players laid down flowers at the monument, had a brief look at the pitch they would be playing on two days later, then went for a meal at the embassy. At all times, they were shadowed by North Korean officials in long coats. “We were always accompanied,” says Silva. “We couldn’t do anything without an escort. If you went to the bathroom, someone would follow you and wait outside the cubicle door.”

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Some of the players saw the funny side. Marangon, the coach, did not. He found the entire experience deeply unsettling. “I asked God to let me see the sea one more time,” he told Brazilian website UOL. “I didn’t know whether I’d ever leave that place.”

In the evening, the players got settled at their hotel, which was not nearly as bleak. “It was top quality, five stars,” says Silva. “They put on these special meals for us, almost banquets. They tried to make things from our cuisine: rice, beans. It was a long way from the Brazilian food we were used to, but we could see the effort they put in. It was really cool.

“We all had a good laugh, joking as normal. The hotel staff didn’t understand anything we said and we didn’t understand them either. Waldir Cipriani understood a bit of Korean, but for the rest of us, there was a lot of laughter. There was also a microphone in the dining room and we would sing Brazilian songs and dance a bit. They would laugh at our style of music.”

At night, there were card games in the rooms. At least until 10pm, when the electricity went off, plunging the city into darkness.


‘Brazil are here’

On the second day, Atletico trained for two hours on the Kim Il-Sung Stadium’s artificial pitch. They were studied throughout by the North Korean players and coaching staff, all of whom were sat in the stands. At the end of the session, it was North Korea’s turn to train. Atletico were not allowed to watch.

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“We had no information about the team we were playing,” says Cipriani. “Zero.”

The following afternoon, after a little more obligatory tourism (a visit to a museum dedicated to Kim Il-sung’s fight against the Japanese), the Atletico players returned to the stadium. There, they were confronted with scenes that would have made even an international footballer draw breath.

“When they saw the stadium, with 80,000 people inside and 20,000 more outside… well, you can imagine their reaction,” says Cipriani, and while most estimates put the capacity of the Kim Il-Sung Stadium at around 50,000, that hardly dilutes the anecdote.

“It was a lot of people,” says Silva. “It was a novelty for them. I think it was this feeling of, ‘The Brazilians are here, Brazil are here’. I think they wanted to see different people — people of a different race, a different colour.”

Brazil, or just Brazilians? That part is up for debate. Some insist that the game was, in some sense, ‘sold’ to the North Korean people as a historic meeting with the most successful nation in World Cup history.

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The scoreboard reading North Korea 0-0 Brazil, at kick-off (Waldir Cipriani, Atletico Sorocaba)

“I think that’s the story they told the people there,” goalkeeper Klayton Scudeler said in an interview with Radio Novelo. “The stadium was packed on every side. I think people thought we were the Brazil team and that’s why it was so rammed.”

Cipriani agrees. “They created this political propaganda,” he says. “The regime wanted people to see North Korea beat Brazil before the World Cup.”

Others, like Silva, are more sceptical. What is certain, however, is that the letters ‘BRA’ up on the scoreboard lent the occasion an extra dose of prestige.

“When I saw the scoreboard and looked at us, all wearing yellow kit… it was cool but I also felt this responsibility,” says Silva. “I felt like I was playing for the Selecao (another name for the Brazil national side). It was an emotional experience.”

It was the same for Marangon. “We had to put on a performance that honoured our country,” he said. “In that situation, we were Brazil.”

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For the players, that sense of patriotism was tempered by pragmatism. “Edu said to play hard, but we were joking around before kick-off,” says Silva. “We said, ‘If we win this game, we might not get out of here alive’. It was a stadium full of soldiers! We thought a draw would make everyone happy.”

As it turned out, they did not need to go easy. North Korea were better than they expected.

“We didn’t expect North Korea to be the best technically, but they were very good,” recalls Silva. “They were also very fast. They clearly did a lot of fitness work. They must have trained with the military because physically they were very strong. They played quick football, each player taking one or two touches, always in the direction of the goal.”


Atletico Sorocaba – not Brazil – take on North Korea (Waldir Cipriani, Atletico Sorocaba)

That was one memorable aspect of the game. Another was the behaviour of the crowd, who cheered enthusiastically when North Korea had the ball and were eerily quiet when Atletico were in possession.

“It was like they were organised or controlled, like they were following rules,” Silva says. “It wasn’t the kind of energy you get from fans in other countries and it wasn’t this big mix of colours. They were all from the military, all in dark green uniform.”

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Cipriani agrees. “It was clearly the work of the state,” he says. “In North Korea, you click your fingers and you fill the stadium. If you decide that this school will send 50 students, that this union will send its workers, that other groups and factories will do the same… it was a state directive to fill the stadium.

“There was no comparison with a stadium in Brazil. There was this deathly silence when we had the ball. It was like a funeral.”

The game ended 1-1. Two days later, over a celebratory meal at one of his residences in South Korea, Moon thanked the players for their efforts — and for the result.

“He said that the North Koreans would have been really angry if we had won,” Cipriani recalls. “He was happy that we drew.”


Recon and recognition

A month after Atletico’s trip to Pyongyang, Brazil were drawn in the same World Cup draw as North Korea. A story that had been doing the rounds in the local press went national.

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All of the major Brazilian newspapers got in touch with Marangon, Cipriani and the players. So, too, did Brazil manager Dunga and his technical staff.

“They didn’t know anything at all about the North Korean team,” says Cipriani. “There was no information. Brazil were set to play North Korea and Atletico Sorocaba knew more than they did.”

Silva looks back on that period with great fondness. “My phone rang off the hook,” he says, giggling. “People wanted to know about their best players, their technical level, their tactics. The fact we went there ended up being a big deal.

“When the World Cup began I was getting so many messages from friends and family. ‘You played them, right?! That’s so cool!’. I remember watching the (Brazil vs North Korea) game and telling my friends, ‘I marked that guy! I’ve got his shirt!’. It was really gratifying.”


Brazil’s Kaka holds off North Korea’s Mun In-guk at the 2010 World Cup; Brazil won the fixture 2-1 (Mike Egerton – PA Images via Getty Images)

In the years that followed, Atletico made three more journeys to North Korea: the senior side visited in 2010 and 2011, and the under-15s took part in a youth tournament in 2015.

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“It was different each time,” says Cipriani. “But by (the second visit) they had realised they weren’t playing the Brazil national team, just a small club from Sao Paulo state with a yellow away kit.”

Cipriani stepped away from the club in 2014. Two years later, with financial support from the Universal Church having dried up in the wake of Moon’s death, Atletico Sorocaba folded, leaving behind only surreal memories.

“I still have a North Korea shirt from that game — the number two, from their right-back,” says Silva. “I’ve been offered a lot of money for that shirt, but I’m not selling it. It’s important to me, historic.

“I’ll cherish these memories forever. They were very special moments in my career. There are so many famous players and teams in the world who have never done what we did. I’m really proud of it.”


Postscript

Brazilian journalist Renato Alves visited North Korea in September 2017. He was there to research his third book, The Hermit Kingdom. He was taken on a 10-day propaganda tour and was accompanied everywhere by three guides.

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One of the sights on his itinerary was the Arch of Triumph, a huge structure aping the Parisian landmark of the same name. Stood on top of the monument, one of the officials accompanying Alves pointed to the Kim Il-Sung Stadium, just a stone’s throw away.

“In this stadium, our eternal president made his first speech after liberating the Korean people from Japanese imperialists,” he said.

“Oh, and it was also there that Brazil played against our national football team. You must have heard about that match. It was very good. I was there.”

(Top photos: Waldir Cipriani; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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