Photo by George J. Tanber
Letter from Brazil
At 92, Soccer’s Legendary ‘Thin
Man of Steel’ Lives on
TERESINA, Brazil – When you meet Carlos Said for the first time you are struck by his voice – or lack of it. More than seven decades behind the microphone at thousands of soccer games has damaged his vocal cords. He sounds like the Godfather’s stand-in.
Yet his weakened pipes do not diminish the man who is one of the most cherished figures in this city of 1.2 million in northeast Brazil. To the contrary, he possesses an energy level and enthusiasm that belie his 92 years.
We’re sitting in the courtyard of his modest central city home, where he has lived for 50 years. [Although we are cousins – our great-grandmothers were sisters – we have never met until today.] The neighborhood, once residential, is now a commercial district. A single house remains – Carlos Said’s. Despite his family’s protests, he has refused to move. This stubbornness, firmly rooted in the man’s DNA, has frustrated his children, friends and colleagues over the years. But it’s also a key reason for his success - and survival.
A lesser man would have been buried long ago.
As we delved into Carlos Said’s story, one thing became clear: It’s hard to discern between what’s fact and what’s been considerably embellished.
Carlos Said himself is the first to admit there’s some shade between what’s real and what’s not.
“There’s Carlos Said the man. And then there’s the myth,” he says, almost whimsical in his delivery. “After all these years I’m sometimes not sure which is which.”
And there’s this: In a country where well-known sports figures often are known by a single name – like Pele – Carlos Said always goes by two.
Carlos Said’s father, Solomon, immigrated to Brazil from Lebanon under unusual circumstances. Abraham Said [Sy-eed] feared his eldest son would be conscripted into the Turkish army during World War I. So he traveled with his son to Teresina, stayed a week and returned to Lebanon, leaving Solomon to fend for himself.
Like many Lebanese immigrants here in those days, Solomon became a peddler. He married a Lebanese woman and had eight children, the sixth of which was Carlos Said.
The conflict between father and son began early. Carlos Said discovered soccer, the national sport, and was in the streets day and night with his friends playing the game they loved. As he moved into his teens, his father – possessing the mentality of a hard-working immigrant - had had enough.
Carlos Said remembers: “He told me: ‘Stop playing. Get serious about your life.’”
Sometimes his father’s belt did the talking. But Carlos Said, ever stubborn, played on. And developed a plan. He recalled listening to the World Cup on the radio in 1938 and was mesmerized by the announcer. Although only 7 at the time, the experience stayed with him and he eventually thought he could somehow combine soccer and radio as a career.
It didn’t take Carlos Said long.
At 14, he persuaded the owner of a sound system that was connected by cable to all the city squares to allow him to announce soccer game scores and news reports. [At the time, radio stations did not exist in Teresina.]
Carlos Said smiles broadly at the memory of his initial success. “At first, they told me ‘No one is interested in soccer news.’ But I kept pushing and finally they relented. They gave me five minutes for each broadcast.”
At 15, he joined an amateur soccer club called River. He was told by his more senior teammates that he’d be the goalkeeper, a pressure position no one else wanted. He was 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed around 125 pounds. But he had the legs of a giraffe and similarly long arms. Carlos Said was a natural keeping balls out of the net.
“I realized,” he says, “I had a gift.”
The team was an enormous success. In his 18 seasons with River, ending in 1963, the team won seven league championships. I ask Carlos what his salary was during those years.
“No money!” he says, his arms wildly flailing like those of a maestro. “Those days were glorious. The best times. Playing the sport I loved. Winning. It was all about love of the game.”
I’m astounded by the man’s energy level. The temperature this day is pushing 100. The matching humidity has my shirt soaked in sweat. Carlos Said, wearing a white soccer t-shirt, brown shorts and sandals, is as dry as a sunny spring day in the mountains. I notice all the windows in the single-story home are open.
“No air conditioning?” I ask.
Carlos Said: “I don’t need it.”
In 1948, when Carlos Said was 17, the city’s first station, Radio Difusora, opened. He was hired to deliver short sports reports. Two years later he was on the mic at the first soccer game broadcast in Teresina. He remained at Difusora until 1962 when he was hired at the much larger Radio Pioneira, a new enterprise backed by the local Catholic church. Carlos Said was named sports and news director. Despite the prestige of the positions, his pay was minuscule. His father remained upset.
To appease Solomon – temporarily – Carlos Said enrolled in law school at the local university. He chose law, not because he wanted to practice but because it was the only course offered at the time.
He graduated in 1956. The following year his father moved the family to Sao Paulo, 1,650 miles south, where there were more opportunities. Carlos Said, then 26, declined to join them, stunning his father. He remembers their last conversation.
“My father told me ‘You will not put food on the table if you are involved in soccer.’ I told him ‘Father, I am going to make my work soccer and one day you’ll see that I was able to provide for my family.’”
As if he needed it, his family’s departure spiked Carlos Said’s motivation.
He remembers: “I felt sad but I had to accept the reality of being alone and move forward with my life.”
In short order, he married Rochelane Fortes, started a family, returned to school for an education degree in history, and was hired by several local newspapers to report on soccer and other sports – in addition to his radio broadcast duties.
By 1964, at 33, he had achieved a level of fame that made Carlos Said a name known in almost every home not just in Teresina but the entire state of Piauí. But as often happens in life, in a single moment everything turned upside down. On March 2 of that year, as he was driving the Radio Pioneira van to cover a serious accident, he was involved in one himself. So critical were his injuries he was given last rites after doctors said there was little chance he could be saved. His fans held vigil outside the hospital and his home, assuming he had died. Word spread that Carlos Said, though gravely injured, had somehow filed a live report from the accident scene, during which he said: “I have just suffered an accident on my way to report on an accident. I am almost dead. But the Pioneira does not stop!”
Reflecting back, Carlos Said says he has no memory of the accident or alleged report. But he’s clear about the outcome: “That was when the legend of Carlos Said began.”
He somehow survived but remained hospitalized a year. Fans who turned up to visit him were aghast at the sight of his broken body. One of them said, loud enough for others to hear, “If that man walks again, he’ll be the Thin Man of Steel.”
Walk he did. The legend grew. And the nickname given to him by the unknown fan stuck.
From his hospital bed in Room 76, Carlos Said opened an office. One of his newspapers delivered a typewriter. He banged out 33 lines each day for a column called 33 Lines. Radio Pioneira set him up with broadcasting gear. He monitored soccer events by radio and filed live reports. If that wasn’t enough, he wrote a book on the history of soccer in Piauí state. His soccer pals crowded into his room to talk shop. Once, in the middle of an important game, there was a dispute between the referees over a rule. The game was stopped. A call to the hospital was made: Carlos Said was asked to intervene. With an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of the game, he solved the issue and the game resumed.
When he finally limped out of the hospital – his right leg two inches shorter than his left – Carlos Said knew his soccer-playing days were over. But his career, as well as his public persona in his home state, rocketed into the stratosphere.
The Glory Years
When heroes return from the dead, they are treated with a level of awe and respect mere mortals can’t fathom. Every place he frequented, Carlos Said had a fawning audience waiting. Although he enjoyed the attention what he really wanted was to return to his normal life. Eventually, he did.
But what was normal for some was anything but for Carlos Said. He taught his history classes in the morning. His afternoons were spent at the Radio Fonteira and writing for various newspapers. After work, he met his many friends for dinner and entertainment at a local cabaret – a Brazilian tradition back in the day. He arrived home late at night. Rochelane was up. His five children – two girls and three boys - were asleep. Sunday mornings were for family. On Sunday afternoons he broadcast soccer matches with his ever-present partner Didimo de Castro.
The years raced by. Carlos Said’s fame grew. The man vs myth question continued as well. One day, at an away soccer match, the home team fans got into it with the Teresina club supporters, who were considerably outnumbered. The fray spilled outside the stadium and was about to turn violent. Suddenly, a lone figure emerged from Teresina crowd. Carlos Said, down from the broadcast booth, took a fighting stance and, allegedly, said: “My name is Carlos Said. I am the Thin Man of Steel. You’re going to have to come through me to get to my friends.” Within minutes, the ruckus had been diffused.
I ask Carlos Said: “Is this true?”
He smiles and says: “As I told you before, what is fact and what is fiction are a blur for me now.”
In the mid-1980s, a single indisputable event occurred without warning: Carlos Said’s voice disappeared. He could not utter a single discernable word. The years of non-stop chatter had taken their toll.
“I lost my most important weapon,” he recalls.
Distressed, he went on leave from the radio station and the school where he taught. He wrote notes to communicate with friends and family. With the extra time he increased his newspaper work, focusing on historical pieces, which he enjoyed.
Some levity returned in 1987, when one of the local samba schools, Sambao, produced their theme song for the annual pre-lent Carnival celebration based on Carlos Said’s life. He served as the Fat Tuesday parade’s grand marshal, and Sambao won first place in the competition between other samba schools.
His inability to speak did not diminish the importance of the day.
“It was magnificent,” he says. “The number one event in my life. Everywhere I went I heard the song being played.”
It took two years, but his voice finally returned – albeit a lesser version of the original. Still, Carlos Said resumed his announcing duties, both at the station and in the booth with Didimo, and began teaching again as well.
“It was,” he says, “an unbelievable happiness. My fans were over the moon to hear my voice again.”
Carlos Said Today
We’ve been talking for more than an hour. Rather than fatigued, as you might expect from a man his age, Carlos Said appears more energized than when we began. Recapping a rich and varied life can do that to a person.
He gave up teaching in 1992 and ended his newspaper career in the late 90s. He stayed on at Radio Pioneira filing daily reports and covering Sunday soccer matches until 2020, concluding a 75-year career.
He says he misses the teaching, the most rewarding of his professions because of the number of students he impacted, but not the rest of it. Fans and friends stop by from time-to-time to talk sports or meet for lunch. He has a large, close-knit family that includes grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They sometimes gather for Sunday meals. His eldest daughter, Soraya, lives with him, attending to his needs. He greatly appreciates her presence.
A typical day? “I listen to the radio. Watch TV. Read a bit. Eat too much. And sleep very well,” Carlos Said says.
Healthwise, he’s fit but requires a cane to get around. The Thin Man of Steel’s handshake is firm, revealing surprising strength.
His fame appears secure. His son, Gustavo, a journalism and media professor at the same state university where Carlos Said also taught, has published two books on his father – one a biography, the other an illustrated account of the accident and his recovery. Over the years, his image has appeared on billboards throughout the city, his legendary nickname in bold, bright letters. A gymnasium adorns his name.
Earlier this year, a local theater troupe performed a play covering his career. Afterwards, the lead actor found Carlos Said in the audience. “I am honored to have portrayed you,” he said. Quipped Carlos Said: “I was happy to be younger for a day.”
In recapping the event to me, he was more serious. “There are no words to describe my emotions of that experience.”
I ask if he has any regrets. Immediately, he tears up and begins talking about his late wife, Rochelane, who died of a heart attack in 1998.
“She was everything for me. I was gone all the time but she was always there, waiting for me. She believed in me. She stimulated me and supported me when nobody believed I could be a good journalist. She told me, ‘Do it. It’s your dream. I will raise the children.’”
His emotions back in check, Carlos Said says he has zero regrets about his career. “I have very good memories of my life. It has all been worth it. And I would do everything again, if I could, the same way.”
I ask: What would your father say if he had lived to see your success?
That evokes a big laugh from Carlos Said.
“For sure he would still say, ‘Stop playing soccer!’”
Editor’s note: First in a series from a reporting trip to Brazil Oct. 21-27, 2023
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