David J. Neal

David J. Neal: After early jitters, Brazil fans samba on South Beach

You can include among the many yellow-and-green-clad corners of the world shocked into nervous quiet for 18 minutes Thursday afternoon the southwest corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.

“They were nervous, so we were nervous,” said Brooklyn-born Paul Regan, husband of Brazilian-born Erika Regan. “Brazil didn’t look like Brazil.”

And SushiSamba didn’t look or sound like SushiSamba. The restaurant that melds Brazilian and Japanese cuisine, modern décor and club jazz music sheds some of its relaxed cool for the World Cup. All the TV screens come into play, tables get turned to give everyone a view, drink and food discounts abound. The DJ gets replaced by drummers and dancers from Brazilian Carnival.

But at 1-0 Croatia after Brazilian defender Marcelo’s attempted clear went straight into his own goal, the samba drums and fandom sat as silent as the rain-emptied tables outside. Nobody yelled in anger, just as you don’t yell at a child you’re worried about after he face plants running when he shouldn’t. There was too much palpable fear that all the pressure from expectations of victory, victory with style, victory as World Cup host, would shackle Brazil’s talents in pursuit of a tying goal.

Then, Neymar restored order. With order came the drums. And the dancing. After, that is, a “Whew” of a goal celebration that brought part of the restaurant to its feet and slumped some back into their seats with relief. The drummers pounded out a rhythm of increasing speed as if hoping to set the pace for their heroes through the TV screens. At halftime, the party resumed as if Brazil’s two second-half goals were checks in the mail with the postman down the block.

“I was very worried for Marcelo,” Regan said. “I don’t think he would’ve made it to the end of the week if they had lost.”

He wasn’t the only one who could envision Marcelo being the Andres Escobar of this tournament. That serious concern could be put aside in the celebration of Brazil’s 3-1 win in the World Cup opener. Usually, the opening game features the defending World Cup champion. That’s Spain, which faces the Netherlands in its first match Friday. Giving Brazil the first match clearly honors the first hosting of the tournament since 1950 by the country that’s participated in the most World Cups and won the most (five).

Putting the hosts on stage first also nods toward Brazil’s standing as much of the non-Argentina world’s second-favorite team after their own country. Perhaps it’s unfair to continually expect them to carry the mantle as the chief artists of “the beautiful game,” but Brazil seems to enjoy the love from living up to expectations of winning with flair and celebrating with as much flair.

Barbara Brandt is from Caracas, Venezeula, has lived in Miami 30 years, but her attire and game-long boogie screamed Brazil.

“My father, Freddy Brandt, was a famous goalkeeper in Venezuela, and we’re [Venezuela] right next door,” Brandt said between dances with fellow Venezuelan Marlene Garcia and Brazilian Carnival.

Brazil’s number of World Cup titles explains why Miami Beach’s Cristina Beck used “Six!” as her smile cue as she posed for one of the many photos taken of her and by her Thursday. Beck butterflied about the place, greeting, grinning and getting down with Brazil fans, the few Croatia fans and SushiSamba managers.

Though slight and of medium height, spotting the 60-year-old originally from Rio de Janiero — “Copacabana Beach!” — was easy with her multicolored laurel of faux flowers.

“I’m a very stylish person,” Beck said. “When I dress, I go all the way.”

At home, she has a T-shirt autographed by the entire 2014 Brazilian national team. Unlike most such memorabilia might be, it’s not framed. She plans to wear it, but only after Brazil wins the World Cup this year.

Such expectations seemed real again after Neymar’s penalty kick gave Brazil a 2-1 lead in a second half that looked as choppy as the early first half. Then, the celebration began and continued until about 10 minutes after the game.

The sun shined on Lincoln Road and Brazil. SushiSamba returned to normal.

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