The best goal I’ve ever seen in person looked like this:
The center forward has gotten free about eight yards from the goal. The ball is on the foot of one of his teammates over by the left touchline, about halfway between midfield and the goal. The forward is facing the ball; he’s got yards of space around him. The cross comes in low and flat, just below waist-level. And slow. There are no defenders close enough to intervene, so the keeper charges, hoping to take it off the forward’s foot before he can trap, turn, and fire.
But the forward — apparently sensing the onrushing goalie — doesn’t trap. Instead he turns slightly, so his body is more or less perpendicular to the goal-line. In one motion, he cradles the cross with his right foot, the foot closest to the goal, killing most of its forward momentum, then flicks it upwards in an arc that rises over the keeper’s head and falls into the net just below the crossbar. It all happened in close to two-and-a-half seconds. When it was over, I kept waiting for a replay that I knew wasn’t coming.
That’s because there were no cameras, video or otherwise, capturing this game. In fact, I might have been the only spectator who saw Gary score his wondergoal, his golazo, the only person other than his teammates and opponents in Central Coast Soccer’s Arroyo Grande adult co-ed league who was clapping for him as he jogged back to await the restart.
Gary is — and I mean this in the nicest way possible — old. Not just old to be playing pick-up soccer, but old old. He left shortly after his game, denying me a chance to ask him his age, but I feel safe guessing that he’s on the far side of 60. He’s nearly bald, and what hair he has left is gray. It’s obvious that he can’t move as well he once could; something about the way he runs reminds me of Kermit the Frog. He is, however, an absolute beast — an (old) man amongst boys. He scores at least three goals in the half I watch, a long-range shot beyond the reach of the goalie, a crisp turn and shoot, and the masterpiece described above. An impressive performance, even in a league that doesn’t keep score.
I’ve written about Old Guys in pickup a couple of times before: once as one of our Pickup Stereotypes and before that when I talked about the strike partnership I formed with a mustachioed Hispanic Old Guy in a pickup game in Austin, Texas. Old Guys are a fascinating piece of the soccer puzzle in this country, where soccer is most often viewed as a game of the future. We talk about the millions of kids involved in youth soccer, but rarely think about the Old Guys, hanging on past their prime.
We expect this more in other countries, I think, places where we assume the populace has a lifelong love of the game. Pelada, the pickup soccer documentary, has a lot of footage of its stars in games with Old Guys, and, in one brief scene, with Old Girls who work as llama-herders in the mountains of Peru. The first players the audience meets in the film are Old Guys who play two halves every Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, then have a “third half” of drinking together. The movie’s two players, Luke and Gwendolyn, play in a rooftop court with Japanese businessmen, on a hardcourt with Jews and Arabs in the center of Jerusalem, and on small enclosed fields in Iran, and in all three countries there are visible Old Guys taking part in the games.
The relationship between older people and the game is a major theme of Pelada. Its protagonists had finished their college careers but weren’t going to go pro. They say outright that part of the appeal of taking this trip for them is holding on to soccer, finding a way to keep it the most important thing in their lives even as their lives are moving on from it. “You just don’t say ‘I’m quitting football,’” a player in Kenya tells the Pelada camera, and that statement seems to be the film’s thesis.
At one point our two heroes are talking with one of Luke’s college teammates who moved back to Germany after playing at Notre Dame to try to start a professional career, and who didn’t make it. It’s a powerful moment, him telling them he’s abandoned that dream, then debating whether to keep playing at all. “You can’t do the things that you used to,” he says, “and you just see yourself getting worse. It’s that time where you just go out for the fun, or you just let it be.”
That hits at the heart of why Old Guys are important for a soccer culture to have. Kids are easy. You can convince a kid to play almost anything at first, and many of them will stick with it while they’re getting better or while their friends stick with it or while they still might get a college scholarship. Old Guys have to choose to keep playing, even though they’re not improving and not getting noticed and even when they’re the only Old Guy out there.
Soccer is not golf or shuffleboard, something picked up later in life; “Once you stop, it’s difficult to come back,” one of the old men in Rio de Janeiro says in Pelada. In fact, I’d argue that an even better indicator of a country’s overall soccer health than the oft-cited number of youth involved in rec leagues and club programs is the number of Old Guys still playing.
There’s next to no way to tell how many soccer-playing kids will continue to play and follow the sport when they hit their teens or their twenties or their thirties, but for the Old Guys, we know that they’ve already done that. And it’s a safe bet that with more old examples around — more fathers and uncles and teachers and coaches familiar with and sympathetic to the sport — then the more of those kids will stick with it throughout their lives, and one day become Old Guys themselves.