In this two-installment story, the author explores his precarious relationship with soccer, and why he can’t imagine life without it.
McDonough is, like most rec fields, patchy, and mostly flat. There are ditches and sparse rocks and hidden sprinklers which must need repair because the grass is never green. And like most rec fields McDonough is festooned with an amazing geometry of painted lines, some faded and some freshly chalked, interweaving like pipes in a Windows 95 screensaver. The reason this place is sacred to me (although I haven’t made a pilgrimage in some time) is that I fell in love with soccer there.
A friend named Sami invited me. It was the second week of college, and he asked if I would come out for a game. “It’s pick-up, no pressure.” I shrugged and said I would go, as I did to most get-togethers in the early days. I owned one pair of athletic shorts, an artifact of high school gym class now two sizes too small and in the permanent collection of my girlfriend. Likewise I didn’t have studs, nor anything really approaching sneakers, save for my canvas New Balances. Thus my inaugural pick-up ensemble consisted of cargo shorts, khaki kicks, and a white T-shirt. To the observer, I was better suited to paint walls. Still, I kept my promise and made an appearance at this 9-a-side affair.
When I arrived, Sami told me I looked ridiculous. Of course I did; I was wearing a belt. “No, your hands are in your pockets. Take your hands out of your pockets.” I suppose I was too busy admiring the architecture of the match to notice how asinine my reflective posture appeared. Since I didn’t yet feel like a soccer player, I assumed a voyeuristic role, like a quixotic reporter in the streets of Pamplona absorbing the sights without heeding the flux of mad bulls around him. So I started making a mental checklist of unusual observations.
First, the field was bisected by a wave of traffic cones connected with black plastic sheeting, creating a boundary closer in contour to New Hampshire than to Colorado.
Second, there weren’t any goals, at least not in the traditional sense of aluminum posts and mesh netting. There were, however, two pairs of shoes, facing each other with proper geometry, king and queen at a protracted dining table. These, I gathered, stood in for goals, dimensional only to discerning imaginations. If a ball crossed the line, but flew too high over the ground (say, half a meter) the score would not stand. How players determined that limit – and how they measured it in real time – remained a mystery.
Third, I was clueless to team arrangements. There were no uniforms, only a few players were bare-chested (so the ‘shirts-and-skins’ rule was defunct), and the division of light and dark tops was tenuous. Instead, teammates identified each other through the rapport they built (which, by the way, made perfidy a viable strategy). And since I built no rapport whatsoever (standing in the back-right corner of the field doesn’t earn points for teamwork), it took some time to get comfortable with, well, doing anything.
I didn’t touch the ball, in fact, until the last minutes of the game when a teammate offered a consolatory backpass. I dwelled on it for a few seconds, looked up, then left, then right, then left again, then toe poked the ball back to my teammate. At least that’s what I meant to happen, except the ball rolled well out of bounds, settling in a ditch on the edge of the field, and the game ended there.
But I was hooked.
Growing up near a state border has repercussions. You can take advantage of the low income tax in one state and the low sales tax in the other. Local news programs give weather forecasts for towns you’ve never visited and election results for councilpersons you’ve never heard of. And for three months in the fall, starting on a Saturday in September, the people you count as your friends become mortal enemies because your sweater is a different color.
Football rivalries dominate the American landscape, but nowhere is the zeal more palpable than the Deep South. I spent my childhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which in my distorted mind is the geographical nexus of Knoxville and Athens, two of the SEC’s college towns. This was no man’s land, where rival fans cohabitated a small city (or a large house, in my family’s case. Grin and bear it). A question would come up in conversation with strangers or loose acquaintances: “Did you catch the game?” and it was an exercise in perception trying to guess what game, which came down to pinpointing the fan with context clues, like a game of “Guess Who?”
Does he say “you all” or “y’all”?
Tevos or Chacos?
Any visible tattoos?
Backwards baseball cap or flipped-up visor?
On Fridays, before gameday, students came to high school wearing hats and jackets and ties colored Volunteer orange or Bulldog red. There were no other options (except for that faction of Alabama fans wearing crimson, but we would just laugh and laugh at them). Me? I was a Bulldog. Because my grandfather was a Bulldog (Georgia Law, Class of 1911).
The fervor reached its zenith in the buildup to the Tennessee-Georgia game itself. Like any other week, Friday’s color war ran havoc on our sense of propriety, but the winning team was afforded the privilege of wearing its colors proudly again on Monday, while the losers sulked through the school day. It’s reminiscent of the guard of honor some teams begrudgingly show a rival when it wins the league (Barcelona for Real Madrid, Chelsea for Manchester United). But I didn’t have that reference point then. My concept of sport was driven by college football and, to a lesser extent, professional baseball. Here’s what I knew about soccer:
Several nations (Ten? Twenty? A hundred?) compete every few years (Two? Four? Five?) in an event called “The World Cup.”
One of those players, a Brazilian named Ronaldo, is quite good – perhaps the greatest in the world.
His compatriot (brother, too, maybe) Ronaldinho is also very good. But very ugly.
And that was it, except for my opinion of soccer. And here it is, summed up in a brazen, offensive, contextualized word that I hate myself for ever using that way: Gay. I thought soccer was gay. Embarrassingly I hadn’t ever seen a proper match. The closest I would come until college was the second half of the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, but that was a historical event – our moon landing. Everyone watched it, and everyone remembers where he or she was. I don’t know where I got off condemning it.
The NFL had 400 pound linesmen making hard-nosed tackles; the NBA, seven-foot goliaths doing windmill jams. Soccer had glitzy samba boys and a group of Yankee gals in ponytails, and that was the only defense I needed.
Part 2 of this story can be found here.