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Area team wins in Brazil

They may play on elite club teams and have competed in state championship games, but they still were the underdogs going into a country were soccer is life.

"(Kids) played on clay fields with no shoes," said Brandon Whitsett, who will be a senior at Palm Harbor University. "Happy, as long as they were playing. That's what we had to go up against."

A group of select high school players from Tampa Bay traveled to Brazil at the end of June to compete in an international soccer tournament. The bay area team won, defeating defending tournament champion Sul Minas 1-0.

Luciano Fernandez, the director of the Tampa Soccer Academy, organized the trip using his connections in Brazil, where he once played as a professional. Fernandez chose Palm Harbor University coach Juan Pablo Pinzon to lead the team, and Pinzon gathered a team of 16 area high school players. Most of the players came from Palm Harbor U., but included players from East Lake, Clearwater Central Catholic, Countryside, Leto, Bloomingdale and Sarasota.

The tournament was in Pouso Alegre/Mina Gerais, between Sao Palo and Rio de Janeiro. Pinzon said his team faced players who were more skillful, quick and talented, but their patience and organization paid off.

The victory was special, but being in Brazil for 10 days may have made a greater impression. The team also played an exhibition, watched a pro game at the home club of Pele and learned futsal, a condensed form of soccer.

"It was the most rewarding experience as a coach," Pinzon said. "Not only did they get to see one of the best places for soccer in the world, they also got to engulf a new culture.

"They've got a car, computer, cell phone. They go down there, these kids are just content that they have soccer cleats," Pinzon said. "There (soccer) is a passion. It's an everyday thing to look forward to."

The moment didn't get lost on the players either.

"What Brazil is to soccer is what Rome is to the Catholics. What Mecca is to Muslims," said Brian Torro who will be a junior at Palm Harbor U. "It's cool to go to a place where soccer is everything."

Fernandez has been taking area select teams overseas to compete in international tournaments for six years. This is the first time one of the teams won.