En Route to World Cup, Ronaldo Plays NJ

Ricardo Jerónimo designed soccer balls covered with plastic pearls (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voice of NY)

Ricardo Jerónimo designed soccer balls covered with plastic pearls (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

When Team Portugal announced they had chosen the United States as their pre-World Cup training camp, 1.5 million Portuguese and Portuguese-Americans celebrated the opportunity to see Cristiano Ronaldo and company up close.

The news that the team would land at Newark International Airport June 2, to train at the New York Jets complex in New Jersey, was particularly welcome in the Ironbound, a Newark neighborhood that thousands of these emigrants call home.

“We’re ready to receive them with open arms,” said Bruno Costa, of the Portuguese Sport Club of Newark. “If they want to visit the community, we’re completely available to plan something. People would love it.”

Bounded on three sides by railroad tracks and on another by the Passaic River, the Ironbound has its heart on Ferry Street. Many of the stores and restaurants along the vibrant street, mostly owned by Portuguese and Brazilians, are expecting to make a profit when the team visits the state.

Pedro Pires works at Pegasus, a sporting goods store where hundreds of jerseys are being sold.

Pedro Pire (Photo by Alexandre Soares)

Pedro Pires (Photo by Alexandre Soares)

“We’re on our fourth order of jerseys. We’ve been selling them out since the announcement [on February 14],” Pires said, explaining they “sell a lot of jerseys every time Portugal is part of an international competition, but this year the numbers are bigger.”

In the window of the store, there are two soccer balls made of green, red and golden pearls. Glued one by one, with about 2,000 plastic pearls each, they are a creation of the designer Ricardo Jerónimo.

“I decided to do these pieces when I found out they were coming. We want them to feel welcome and get the strength they need for the competition,” Jerónimo said. “These days, with the country going through so much, the national team is our biggest source of pride.”

The excitement is being shared by Americans. Luís Gonçalves, a Portuguese teacher at Princeton University, remembers his students’ reaction when they found out the team would train at their campus (they later had to move to the Jets complex, for security reasons).

“They were so excited. There are some Portuguese Americans, but most of them are Americans. They all know Cristiano Ronaldo,” he said.

Gonçalves believes there’s a “Ronaldo factor.”

“The big players, like Eusébio, Figo and now Cristiano Ronaldo, appeal to everyone, and the fascination doesn’t get smaller because you’re a second- or third-generation Portuguese or from another country,” he said.

Portugal, the third-ranked team in the world, will play two games during their U.S. stay. The first is against Mexico at Gillette Stadium, in Massachusetts; the second against Ireland, at MetLife Stadium, in New Jersey.

Around 50,000 of the 82,000 seats available at Metlife Stadium have been sold. Bruno Costa says he’s “sure the stadium will be full with thousands of Portuguese.”

“People don’t care if they have to drive for five or six hours if they have the chance to see the players they love,” Costa explained.

Luís Gonçalves, who has lived in the country since 1997, believes soccer is the decisive uniting factor in the community.

“We’re organized in different clubs, according to different regions in the country. But when the national team plays, we’re all together. If they win, Ferry Street is like any other street in Portugal,” he said.

In the last international competition the country was part of, the European Cup in 2012, the team made it to the semifinals and thousands of supporters converged on Ferry Street, where they erupted in a red and green display of national pride, their chanting bouncing off the walls and echoing along the street.

Many of the supporters celebrating that day were second- and third-generation Portuguese, like Pedro Pires.

“All my Portuguese-American friends love soccer, that’s all we talk about,” Pires explained. “Besides our family, it’s definitely what connects [us] more to our origins.”

The Portuguese Sport Club currently has two senior teams, but will have a junior team starting next fall.

Bruno Costa of the Portuguese Sport Club of Newark (Photo by Alexandre Soares)

Bruno Costa of the Portuguese Sport Club of Newark (Photo by Alexandre Soares)

“We had to end the kids team a few years ago, but our children now have a fever for soccer that didn’t exist. The new generations like soccer even more than the last ones,” Bruno Costa said.

At Pegasus, Pires sees this excitement grow beyond Portuguese and Brazilian fans every day – dozens of Americans are going to the store to buy soccer equipment.

“We started noticing this two years ago. More and more Americans come to the store to buy soccer sneakers, balls, jerseys. I can also see it with my American friends, they’re much more aware of the sport,” he said.

Portugal leaves the United States June 10, to start off its World Cup participation in Salvador, Brazil, where the players face Germany June 16. Then they meet the United States team in Manaus, Brazil, on June 22, and conclude the group stage with Ghana in Brasilia four days later.

In the Ironbound, hundreds of supporters will watch the games on the giant screens at the Portuguese Sport Club of Newark and area restaurants, anxiously waiting for the final whistle to take the celebration to the streets and turn Ferry Street into Portugal Avenue once again.

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