TEWKSBURY — Alencar Ventura Junior was 22 years old when he left Brazil, hoping to settle in the United States. His 5,000-mile journey to Boston took 42 days, including a night stuck in a rainstorm in a forest outside Guatemala City.
Nearly 14 years later, Junior returned to Guatemala, this time as a member of the US national team that qualified for the World Cup at the CONCACAF Futsal Championships in May. Before each match, Junior stood with teammates, hand on heart, singing the national anthem. It was a scene hardly imaginable in 2007, when Junior was dealing with coyotes, hitching rides, hoofing it for hours, and wading across the Rio Grande.
“I had to cross the river like from here to there,” Junior said, pointing across a soccer field in Lynnfield. “It was kind of scary. It was night, and we don’t know what to expect when we get there. We don’t know anything, right? We just know we’re going to cross this river.”
Junior got to the US side, losing his documents in the current, and a final ride dropped him off near Houston.
“That last day, I walked 15 hours,” Junior said. “I’m faithful, I’ve been religious my whole life, and I was praying every day, because we don’t know what to expect. Especially in Mexico, it’s dangerous.
“We don’t have many options, so when we get in a place, we have to stay locked in until we can go out and take the next step and go to another place. In Guatemala, those guys took us to the forest and it was, ‘What are we doing here?’ We thought we’re going to be left there. We’re there for, like, two hours and it was raining, then somebody comes and picks us up. It was not fun.”
Eventually, Junior joined three siblings in Boston, and soon after arriving, he took the field for Boston Olympiakos, a top team in the amateur Bay State Soccer League. That would be the start of a soccer odyssey that has taken Junior to Safira FC, which won the first of four national futsal championships in 2009 (he was named MVP and led the tournament in scoring), and to qualification for the FIFA Futsal World Cup.
Along the way, Junior found a niche in the outdoor game, competing in the murky world of ethnic and semi-pro leagues, surviving against uncompromising defenders on perilous fields, establishing a reputation as a consistent goal-scorer whom teams would pay on a per-game basis to help them win.
“Sometimes I was playing five games a day in Spanish leagues,” Junior recalled. “We played in Waltham, Chelsea, Somerville. I played for Portuguese teams in LASA [Luso American Soccer Association].
“The most I made in a weekend was $1,300, but I had to play three games to make that. It was good, but like I say, it’s not worth it to me to leave the house and play for $50. Sometimes they say he’s a mercenary. But I go because I like to play and, at the same time, I hear about Brazilian guys who come here and they are so good, but in big games they disappear.”
Junior rose to the challenge, and by 2012, lower-league teams started calling — the United Soccer League’s Worcester Hydra, Seacoast United, and Western Mass Pioneers, where he played with Revolution midfielder Tommy McNamara and was named to the league’s Best XI. On the indoor circuit, Major Arena Soccer League squads brought Junior in for playoff runs: the Las Vegas Legends, Cedar Rapids Rampage, and Utica City FC.
People are calling
Junior, who played in Brazil’s third division, estimates he has totaled more than 300 goals since moving to the US. Most of the time, his path was off the beaten soccer track, likely costing him a chance to move to a higher level.
“When I got here, I was really in shape, but I didn’t have papers,” Junior said. “People said, ‘Hey, Junior, you should’ve tried for the Revs.’ But it was difficult to find a club that would accept me, because of [citizenship questions].
“I got an invitation from the Ottawa Fury in Canada, but papers were a big issue at the time. Then I got married and had a son, and it becomes more difficult.”
Junior met his future wife during the 2013 US Futsal championships in Anaheim. They settled in Tewksbury, raising a son, Leandro. And Junior became more of a homebody.
“I still have a lot of people calling me, and now they will be calling me more,” Junior said after the US’ futsal success. “I would do it, I don’t mind playing for 300 bucks, but I love my family and I work so hard that on the weekend I need to be home.”
Junior spends days as a finish carpenter and nights working out in a gym he built in his basement. At 35, he remains in prime condition, savvy and strong enough to take on younger foes, his goal-scoring instinct intact.
Less than a week after playing for the US, Junior joined Safira for a Sunday morning outdoor match in the New England Over The Hill Soccer League. Unless you noticed the US national team facemask Junior wore on the sideline, you might have thought he was just another weekend player. But once he took the field, his composure and confidence stood out as he converted a penalty kick and set up a goal as Safira took a 5-3 win over Lynnfield Azzurri.
Representing the US
That combination of poise and spirit convinced US futsal coach Dusan Jakica to select Junior for the team from tryout camps that included more than 500 players.
“He plays with passion,” said Jakica , who arrived in the US from Serbia in 2015. “They represented this country in the best way, and it doesn’t matter if he’s an immigrant or how they got here. We didn’t get some things in our original countries, plus there is the additional motivation for us to prove we deserve this.
“When I coach, I need to be better than someone in this country because I am a foreigner. When they play, they are Americans but they have to prove they belong.”
‘They represented this country in the best way, and it doesn’t matter if he’s an immigrant or how they got here.’
US futsal coach Dusan Jakica on adding Alencar Junior to the national team
In the CONCACAF event, Junior overcame an ankle injury as the US played six games in seven days. Junior failed to score and seldom had a chance to demonstrate the stepover moves that earned him the nickname “Juninho Pedalada.”
But he was entrusted with taking most of the team’s restarts and in the semifinals converted a penalty kick as the US defeated Guatemala after playing to a 2-2 draw.
Before the opening game against El Salvador at the Domo Polideportivo in Guatemala City, which was built to host futsal competitions, Junior’s emotions ran high as he stood at attention with his teammates.
“They asked us what we wanted to do, do we want to protest, have a knee down?” Junior said. “And everyone agreed to walk into the arena with our hands together and stand with hand on chest, because of what this country gave to us and we all feel so blessed to be there. I think it was the key for us to be more together, like family.
“It felt amazing, I can’t even describe it. A kid comes from a small town [Itabirinha de Mantena] in Brazil with nothing, no English. And after 14 years is called to represent the US national team in competition and won a qualifying spot.
“In 2007, things were very hard in Brazil. I wanted to go to the US but when I got here things weren’t that good. But we get up at 6 a.m., work 10 hours every day, and fight for everything we have.
“The speech I have is, it’s never too late; keep working, trust yourself, and be prepared for the moment because the moment could be tomorrow. That’s how it is. I am always preparing myself, always in good shape. And we put our names in history.”