When Germany found the back of the net seven times to beat Brazil in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Marcony Pimentel sat there crying.
The junior midfielder for UCLA men’s soccer (6-9-3, 2-6-2 Pac-12) said he hadn’t cried for the Brazilian national team since he was a child. Yet on this occasion – for the Brazilian native who had played for Germany’s U17 national team – the 18-year-old’s loyalty to Brazil was clear.
But Pimentel wasn’t one of the sobbing faces that flashed across television screens around the world, streaming live from Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Football Stadium. Instead, he was oceans away from his hometown of Juiz de Fora, Brazil, training with the SC Freiburg football academy in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.
“It was probably one of the saddest days in soccer,” Pimentel said. “I cried a lot. I was at the academy wearing a Brazilian jersey, and there were (so many) Germans around me. And they were talking smack (to) me. They knew that I was born in Brazil, and they all knew that I was so passionate about (them), so I knew they wanted to tease me.”
Pimentel spent his teenage years in Germany, but the midfielder said the influences of the two soccer powerhouse nations developed his game on the pitch – just as it did his character away from the game.
Born a few hours north of Rio de Janeiro, Pimentel learned to play soccer in the streets. Similar to millions of other Brazilian kids, he competed in unorganized games without formal teams and lacked a proper jersey and cleats.
“I played with players who were so much older than me who kicked me around, and (I had to) kind of fight my way through it,” Pimentel said. “It was a lot of fun – we did it every day and every weekend. We got together with everyone on the street, girls and boys, no matter how old they were. … We pretty much just needed two rocks or two flip-flops, and you put them on the floor to have a goal.”
It was from those street-style pickup games that Pimentel fell in love with his birth country’s favorite sport – futebol. Competing with his neighborhood friends, Pimentel’s first soccer identity was distinctly Brazilian, centered around creativity with the ball and the ability to dribble circles around opposing players.
“Brazilian players like to do tricks and be free, dodge players and are quicker in their head because they grow up with that, and they grow up having fun with it,” Pimentel said. “Because people grow up in these environments, it’s very hard to come out of there. You have to be very lucky that people notice you, and everything has to go right.”
While Pimentel developed his creative, albeit raw, talent for the game, a change in his father’s employment as an engineer meant that his family had to move from Brazil to Germany when he was around 10 years old.
The transition from Brazil to Germany didn’t come without challenges for Pimentel.
He didn’t know the language, yet was immediately enrolled in local German schools. On the soccer side, Pimentel played for a few smaller clubs in his new home country before participating in a tournament in which he was noticed by a Freiburg scout.
“(I first played) in a village soccer club, and to be honest, I was selfish – I never passed the ball,” Pimentel said. “But through that, people got to notice me a little bit more.”
He was offered a tryout by the Freiburg scout, and after two days of observation, the then-15-year-old Pimentel was offered a space in its youth academy.
Pimentel said the formal academies in Germany were a different world than the informal games he had played back in Brazil.
“In Germany, it’s the exact opposite (of Brazil),” Pimentel said. “Yes, there are some people that play for fun, but most people are playing to be productive and to get results. We got almost brainwashed to think that way. So I had this creative part that I had in myself already, but I learned that to be a soccer player, you need to be disciplined.”
While Brazil taught Pimentel about the passion, creativity and movement required to excel as an amateur, it was the German youth football system that he said helped him hone those skills and provided formal training to perfect his technical skills.
Like Brazil, Germany has produced some of the top talents to grace the world stage of soccer, including the German national squad that won the World Cup in 2014. Pimentel said the expectations to hold himself to a specific “German” standard of soccer were felt every day that he was at Freiburg.
“You had to have a standard every single day. You had to perform every single day,” Pimentel said. “And because everyone kept you accountable by performing so well, you were forced to do as well. It made us a very good team, because we were competing so hard and pushing each other to be the best.”
As Pimentel accrued more time in the Freiburg academy, he realized his dreams of making the first team grew less and less likely. Through Freiburg teammate and U.S. men’s national soccer team goalkeeper Zack Steffen, Pimentel was introduced to the idea of going to college to earn a degree while also playing soccer at the NCAA level.
Pimentel committed to Pittsburgh and played two seasons, but decided to transfer to UCLA and join first-year coach Ryan Jorden – who was hired in April – in Westwood. Jorden said Pimentel’s experiences abroad have instilled qualities in the midfielder that have made him a valuable asset to the team.
“Any time you have the experiences that he’s had, it lets you have a maturity associated with it,” Jorden said. “He obviously has good technical quality, and that’s stuff that is ingrained from an early age. You can see those qualities that he’s able to bring along with his competitive drive – two of his greatest strengths.”
Upon arrival to Westwood, Pimentel immediately found a cultural connection with one of the squad’s veterans – redshirt senior defender Matthew Powell – who is also of Brazilian heritage.
“You put two Brazilians in a room, give them five minutes, and they’re friends,” Powell said. “I lived in Brazil when I was younger, so there’s the understanding of the culture, and we speak the language, so that’s another connection.”
If Brazil was the foundation for his passion and creativity and the German club system was the instruction for his strict technique and disciplined midfield style, then the U.S. has been his education on mental and physical toughness, Pimentel said.
But while the physicality of U.S. soccer has added yet another element to Pimentel’s game on the pitch, it’s his experiences from outside the country that he said are valuable to impart on his team here in Los Angeles.
“Most of them are from California, and I see they’re a little bit … almost innocent,” Pimentel said. “I just got to meet so many different people with different thoughts and see so many different cities, it just shapes you as a person. It makes you enjoy life more, makes you more humble, it makes you teach people how to think in a different way.”
From the streets of Brazil to the academies of Germany and all the way to the pitch of Wallis Annenberg Stadium, Pimentel might be considered a soccer player of multiple identities.
While that may be true, make no mistake – when it comes to the national team he supports, Pimentel is all for Brazil.
So it’s probably best not to bring up that 2014 World Cup.