Mustafa is not a soccer fan. Mustafa is not Brazilian.
Yet he is exactly what the World Cup is all about.
When people ask what I remember most about my trips to the world’s biggest sporting event, I don’t usually regale them with fantastic goals or tension-filled matches.
It’s the people that I remember most vividly. Folks who have gone miles and miles out of their way, literally and figuratively, to make this stranger feel at home.
This trip no doubt will still have many wonderful memories, including today’s opening match between host Brazil and Croatia at Arena Corinthians, but there’s nothing likely to top meeting Mustafa.
Our encounter was born out of necessity, or perhaps it was fate that serpentined its way through myriad hallways in the electronics district in a city of 20 million as I searched for help with my cellphone problem.
The trials of his journey from his home country of Syria make a phone problem seem as small as an SIM card.
Six months ago, he was living in Damascus, attending college and trying to earn a degree in industrial electronics. Every few days, bombs would explode on his way to school in a country embroiled in civil war.
“A friend of mine said: ‘My family is going to Brazil. Do you want to go?’ ” the 20-year-old said. “It happened that suddenly. I wanted to go. I had one week to learn Portuguese.”
No stranger to learning a language — Mustafa said he picked up English from playing video games and listening to music — he started absorbing Portuguese online at a site called Duolingo.com. Then came the ultimate source.
“In the streets, you learn more,” he said, specifically referring to language but clearly implying a broader meaning.
Score one for video games, Internet and life experience because his English is easily understandable, and he clearly knows Portuguese well enough to help those stopping at the phone fix-it shop where he works.
His language comprehension is pretty amazing, but no more amazing than how he handled leaving parents, a brother and a sister while coping with life in a new hemisphere.
“It was a new page in my life, a new start,” Mustafa said.
And it happens to come at a time when the rest of the country is enveloped in soccer.
While it’s not his sport, he’s glad to see the excitement the World Cup brings to the people in his new country.
“I respect others,” Mustafa said. “You can see how much the people care.”
Mustafa has that same kind of enthusiasm for his sport — parkour. It’s a game and training discipline in which the participants use only their bodies to overcome obstacles and go from one point to another.
To explain it, he showed me a video on his phone. He literally runs straight at a wall, starts to walk up it and then does a flip and lands on his feet. It’s a maneuver that would make even Spider-Man, or any player that’s successfully performed a bicycle kick, proud.
Mustafa knows not everyone in Brazil is doing flips over the World Cup.
“Some people in Brazil are not liking the World Cup because of the economics,” said Mustafa, while assisting customers in a booth that’s about a quarter of the size of a 6-yard box. “The people see that it’s more necessary to spend the money on needs and not the World Cup.”
On the other side of Sao Paulo, in a theaterlike atmosphere at the massive Transamerica Expo Center, FIFA President Sepp Blatter addressed the congress of soccer’s organizing body.
“It’s impossible to make everybody happy,” Blatter said Wednesday in a speech in which he also talked about playing the World Cup on other planets.
Mustafa is a lot more grounded, even if that ground is less than six months old to him.
“For me, it was normal,” Mustafa said of the transition to living in Brazil. “I have traveled to a new place, and I like it. Every new experience is a good chance for me.”
As for his goal, it isn’t 8 feet high and 8 yards wide with a net in the back. It’s to reach America some day and work on computers.
In a brief time of knowing him, you get the feeling he’s got as good a chance of converting a goal as Neymar.