Brazilian star Batata brings dazzling soccer act to Los Angeles
They've got an awful lot of coffee - er, great soccer players in Brazil! But the player most Brazilians regard as their best (Batata) is currently fulfilling the first year of a three-year contract with the Los Angeles Lazers of the Major Indoor Soccer League. In nearly every offensive situation, he seems to be two steps ahead of the players around him.
Though a compact 5 ft. 6 in. and 145-lbs., the 28-year-old forward has legs powerful enough to transform a soccer ball into a guided missile. He is always a threat, and his presence has already put wings on the playoff dreams of a Lazer team that lost 40 of 48 games last season.
Indoor soccer is a new experience for Batata, however. The playing field is smaller and players often rocket balls off the sideboards in the same manner as a hockey puck. Still, nothing changes the job of the feet. Even though he is now forced to work his magic on a green carpet instead of natural grass, he remains adept at drawing opponents out of position and starting things offensively.
Watching Batata dribble the ball with his feet as if it were controlled by the strings of some invisible puppeteer is what pulls spectators out of their chairs and opposing coaches out of their socks. It isn't something you can teach; it's something you have to feel.
Naturals like Batata, of course, can sometimes be too caught up in their own individual brilliance, yet he prides himself on being a team player.
''Anytime you bring in a player with the reputation of a superstar, you always wonder what effect it will have on the mental state of the rest of your team,'' said Lazer Coach Peter Wall. ''Some great players, you know, are prima donnas. They expect to be treated differently. They often demand a lot of management. Sometimes they even ask you to bend training rules for them.
''But Batata hasn't been like that at all,'' Wall continued. ''He is always on time for practices; he works extremely hard; and he makes better players of his teammates. Because indoor soccer is new to him (purists often refer to it as life-size pinball), he still thinks the way he would if the game were being played outdoors. But he will adjust and his skills will get us into the playoffs.''
Batata, whose given name is Nilton da Silva, was a member of Brazil's famed Santos team for five years and was voted his nation's best right wing in both 1979 and '80. He played two seasons with the legendary Pele, and also included among his career highlights are two years with the Brazilian National Team and three seasons with Club America in Mexico.
''Indoor soccer big change for me,'' Batata told reporters recently after scoring a goal plus an assist as the Lazers defeated the Pittsburgh Spirit 5-3 at the L.A. Forum. ''It going to take awhile before I learn everything I need to know. The field is different; the lighting is different; the way the ball is played off the boards is different.
''But the thing I like least is the carpet,'' he continued in his halting English. ''It feel heavy to my legs. It slow me up. I am thinking carpet sometimes when my mind should be somewhere else. But since I am serious about indoor soccer, no one should worry, because I will adjust.''
Asked what goes through his thoughts when he controls the ball, Batata replied:
''I react the same whether I have the ball or whether one of my teammates controls it. I am always getting straight in my mind where everybody on the playing field is in relation to myself. But when I make a pass that sets up a goal or when I receive one, it is my instincts that tell me what to do. I wish I could explain to you better, but I can't.
''Mostly, I guess, I am always looking for the quick opening. On power plays, I want to get the ball to the player who is in the best position to shoot. Sometimes if I think I see the goalie leaning, I shoot the ball myself to take advantage of the situation. But it isn't important who shoot, only that the ball goes in the goal.''
The only criticism Wall has of Batata so far, if you can indeed call it that, is that he doesn't shoot enough.
''I am not pushing things right now because everything is new to Batata and he needs time to adjust,'' the L.A. coach explained. ''But so far he has been a little too team-oriented to suit me. He is so anxious to get everyone involved and make his teammates look good that sometimes he passes up shots he should be taking.
''If this continues, I'll speak to him. But he is so smart and knows so much about the game that I'm sure he'll make the correction himself. We're getting better. But I'm eager to get away from this win-one-game, lose-the-next-game routine. I want us to reach a plateau where our victories will come in bunches.''