Posted: March 10th, 2022
¶ … soccer is a boring, low-scoring game. “Dude, get a real game,” one of my friends always says as he sees me walking down the sidewalk, rolling my black-and-white ball from side to side. I laugh, because I know that for many people, all over the world, soccer — or what they call football — is the only real game. And I sympathize with them.
When the World Cup was held recently, I cheered myself hoarse as the United States’ team lurched to an improbable victory early in the tournament. But I am not a fair-weather friend of soccer. I watched the entire tournament to the end, eagerly looking for pointers to improve my own game. From the controlled teamwork of the Dutch players to the spectacular pyrotechnics of Brazil’s fancy footwork, each moment was a learning experience for me. The compressed time frame of the sport, too tight to comfortably allow for sprawling American commercials, keeps the viewer’s focus on the action.
It is this channeled, almost tunnel vision-like focus required to play soccer that makes me love the game. Like tennis, you must keep your eye on the ball at all times, but also on all of your opponents and teammates. Low-scoring it might be, but there are few opportunities to rest, mentally or physically, on a soccer field.
Soccer has been an abiding passion of mine, ever since I can remember, from the first time I rolled the ball from toe to toe across my yard. I was small for my age when I was young, too slight to play football and too short for basketball. Baseball’s long periods of waiting didn’t hold my attention — much to my father’s dismay, I’d be more apt to be looking at the sky than waiting for a fly ball to smack into my glove. However, with soccer there was no way for me not to pay attention, because of the constant action.
All of the things that made me unsuited for the really ‘cool sports’ like my lack of brawn, my small stature, and my constant need for stimulation, made me good at soccer. My speed and agility quickly sharpened as the result of my constant practice and obsessive playing with teammates and friends. Even in a casual game in gym class, I’d give it my all, sneakers flailing on the ground, determined to make it to the head of the gaggle of other kids and score that elusive goal.
I swiftly graduated to organized teams; I got my own cleats and uniform. I remember loving the smell of the grass as I churned it up with my spikes. It was the smell of victory to me even at practice. When I didn’t know what I was doing in all of the other facets of my life, I felt confident when playing soccer. On a wet, windy day when I’d failed a math quiz and sat alone at lunch, I’d tear onto the field for practice, brushing away my mother’s offer of a soft, cozy sweatshirt.
As a kid, the ritual of a weekend soccer game was observed with just as much care as any religious rite. I’d get up early in the morning, put on my uniform, and have a breakfast of cereal and toast, without too much milk or butter, because that might unsettle my stomach. My mother didn’t know much about soccer technique, but she knew that her sports-crazy son needed his carbohydrates for energy before a game. Then I’d ride in the car next to my dad to the soccer field. My first coach, one of the fathers of another player, was a tall, thin, slightly stooped bald man who had played soccer in college. He treated us like professionals, forcing us to do wind sprints that made our chests heave. However, despite his seriousness, he always complimented us and forced us to shake our opponents’ hands after a game, win or lose.
Some of my teammates only enjoyed the games, but I even liked the practices as a little kid. I liked the footwork drills best. I imagined that an elastic string was connected to the ball from my toe, and when I played no matter what the opposing team did, they couldn’t break it. Try as they might, that ball was mine. Of course, my coach also stressed the value of teamwork. Back then, I didn’t fully understand what playing as a team meant. I didn’t quite comprehend what was so special about soccer: although soccer allows for displays of individual excellence, it also forces you to think as a unit, and sometimes step back from the spotlight.
I was lucky at first and good enough to justify my early arrogance. I was a ball hog — I never passed if I thought I could kick the ball into the goal all by myself. My parents were proud of their talented son and always rewarded me with the obligatory ice cream cone after a game when it was hot or a mug of hot chocolate and a doughnut when the air was crisp. They didn’t care what I did so long as I was having fun, but I admit that I had much more fun when I won and when I scored the winning goal.
Gradually, as I got older and began to play on more competitive teams I realized that the game wasn’t all about me. A few humiliating missed goals when I should have passed taught me quickly, as did the sharp words of my next coach. My second coach was younger, and wiser to my cocky attitude. He wasn’t above making me do twenty pushups if he saw I was slacking off during practice. I still remember how my arms ached as they pressed into the grass. Sometimes I’d come home from practice feeling as if every muscle in my body had been put through an old-fashioned wringer and I wouldn’t want to get up in the morning.
But I did get up and go to school, because I knew ‘no school, no soccer’ according to my parents. I wasn’t a quitter. Soccer kept me disciplined at my studies, and eventually I began to understand why my coach demanded that I sometimes take a back seat on the field to the players who I felt were less stellar than myself. He was teaching me humility. Unless everyone got a chance to play, we wouldn’t be functional as a team. A team, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link. Thanks to his disciplined and democratic approach, every link on our team’s chain was strong.
At the end of the season, he held a barbeque for all of the players at his house. A man of many talents, he stood by the grill, smoke billowing out as he turned the hamburgers and hotdogs, making little jokes about everyone as he fed them, just to remind us that he hadn’t forgotten all of our little foibles during the season. But during a quiet moment, when the other guys were playing a pick-up game, coach put his arm around my shoulder and told me that he was prouder of the times when I assisted other players than when I tried to take the lead on the field. For the first time, I felt like an equal to an adult. Of course, I’d been praised by teachers, but my coach’s approval underlined how far I had come as a person, as well as the fact I had improved my ability. I remember not knowing what to say, looking at the ground as he told me that he hoped I would keep playing, and that the more talented a player was, the harder he pressed that player to overcome his weaknesses.
Over the years, although I’ve enjoyed playing other sports, I’ve continued to try to perfect my soccer game. Football and basketball may draw the spectators and cheerleaders, but soccer to me is like a chess game with my feet — a mental and physical workout. I remember the lesson, every time I play, that like a chess game, you can’t forget the presence of the many other players on your team and on the other side. My seriousness, even when playing casually, drives some of my friends insane, but the lessons that have been drilled into me have been too hard-won for me to put aside easily. “Don’t be so hard on them,” my aunt will say as I try to teach one of my cousins the right way to stop a ball when it skids into the net.
I firmly believe that taking something that is ‘just a game’ very seriously is the only way to derive serious knowledge and serious fun from that game. And soccer has been more than a source of physical and personal enrichment for me in recent years. Soccer has also opened up an entirely new world to me of sports fandom on an international level. My friends who love baseball and football might talk to other Americans across the country, but to love soccer and follow the ‘best of the best’ requires a player to speak many languages and to be fluent in many cultures. Online, because I follow European and world soccer (‘football’) I’ve connected with people with whom I would never otherwise speak. Soccer unites people from Europe, Africa, Central America — even the Middle East. it’s a contentious, sometimes even violent game, but it can also be a source of friendship and self-definition.
Soccer requires a great deal of technique and teamwork to play, but ultimately it is a very simply sport. It doesn’t require a lot of equipment or fancy uniforms like football. You can easily play a pickup game with nothing but a ball and two marked goals. I love teaching my non-soccer playing friends and relatives how to enjoy the game, just as much as I enjoy playing on a high level. The next day I might ache, but in the moment of play, there is nothing in the world but me, the ball, and my fellow players.
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