In this two-installment story, the author explores his precarious relationship with soccer, and why he can’t imagine life without it. Part I can be found here.
I told Sami I was ready to get serious.
“You need a team.”
Dion stroked his chin, studying me like an art critic. What kind of painting was I? What qualities did I have? Was there an underlying theme to me? In footballing terms, who should I support?
I didn’t have the slightest clue. “You’ll have to help me.”
So they started to list clubs.
Dion suggested Arsenal first, probably because he was a Gooner. He explained that their best player was a forward named Henry, who was also a star in the French national squad. The team was technically gifted, and although they didn’t win a lot of trophies, they entertained in every match. These were qualities I admired (or thought I admired; I still hadn’t seen a match). After all, shouldn’t sport be entertaining? There’s no joy in a drab match, even if your team wins. I imagined what Arsenal supporters must look like. Since Dion was my only evidence, they were all Trinidadian.
Sami interjected. Before I picked a team, I needed to pick a league. Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga were out – esoteric, maybe, and otherwise not good primers for a novice fan. Serie A was a storied league, but some top clubs had been indicted for match fixing a few months earlier and Sami and Dion were hesitant to recommend any disreputable clubs. That left the English Premier League and La Liga. Sami explained the critical differences – that the English are strong and physical, play into space and lob passes deep into the attacking half; the Spanish are small and quick, emphasizing short passes and steady build-up. I mulled the distinctions over in my mind, thinking in analogies. If these were comedians, England would be Dane Cook – bombarding his fans with joke after angry joke, hardly pausing to breathe and always taking the easiest route. Spain must be something more like Bill Cosby, telling stories in fragments – the audience knows there’s a punchline coming and smiles through the quirky tidbits, until the joke finally resolves, and everyone’s wearing a huge, dorky grin.
“I think I’d like La Liga.” (I hate Dane Cook.)
They mentioned two teams in the same breath.
As I later found out, neither of these suggestions was surprising. Dion was a Gunners fan, so he supported the like-minded blaugrana (Arsenal and Barcelona draw comparisons for having similar philosophies, even now, in spite of the former’s fall from grace). Sami grew up idolizing Zinedine Zidane and the rest of the Real Madrid squad. He had seen them defeat Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champion’s League final – their third European trophy in five years. He had also lived in Spain for a year before college where he saw the team play firsthand. Most of all, he liked to reference Los Blancos as the best club side in history (a claim my Milanista friend would later reject as spurious). It took a couple more years before I could appreciate the rest of La Liga’s offerings – the Atletico tandem of Forlan and Aguero, Villarreal’s stylish midfield, Valencia’s David-David pair. For now, I had to choose between two teams. And as bizarre as it sounds to say these days, I chose the underdog: Barcelona.**This was fall 2006 – Barcelona would finish the next two seasons without trophies.
When I saw it, I was eighteen years old, about a year younger than he was. I didn’t know much about Maradona – that he was from Argentina, that he was mentioned with Pele as the greatest ever , that he was now an overweight alcoholic. But he had scored a goal in Mexico that reporters were comparing to Messi’s. Impossible, I thought. This goal was a miracle. I watched it live, then again on YouTube after the match. I memorized the movements like choreography, which is surprising because I’m a much worse dancer than soccer player.
I relished his first step the most, because I knew it was something I could never do. Xavi gave the ball a little spin, which, from Xavi, communicates one of two things: give-and-go, or beat your marker. Messi chose the lonely path.
His first touch was lazy. Or it looked that way, since the ball rolled out toward his marker, but in fact he did exactly what he meant to do: He set a trap. He let the ball dangle, just for a half-second, enough time to entice the defender. Salesmen call it ‘the hook.’ It’s the line that gets your foot in the door. Selling a vacuum is the easy part – making the customer curious is much harder. Messi pulled off the perfect hook. And before the defender could say “What’s the catch,” he was gone.
I’d seen shimmies, jukes, and cuts in the repertoire of many NFL and college running backs. I did the Dirty Bird with Jamal Anderson on the Falcons’ 1998 march to the Super Bowl and watched highlight tapes of Herschel Walker breaking tackles en route to a national championship. But what made Messi’s goal more endearing than any touchdown I’ve seen is that he did it with a soccer ball. The shimmies, the jukes, the cuts – all of it.
The elite running backs make their historic runs with the pigskin superglued to their chest pads. Not so in soccer. The best moments happen in spite of the ball – a stubborn, paneled sac of air – getting in the way. The only analogy I can muster is Usain Bolt winning the 200-meter dash kicking a rusty can. The term solo effort applied here is a misnomer – the ball and player are separate entities; that they are running in tandem is merely a coincidence of control. The great challenge for stars, and the great spectacle for us, is not beating defenders and breaking tackles. It’s keeping the ball in orbit. The body is not enough to win games. The players must be magnetic. And like a dipole, they must know when to attract and when to repel the ball.
I found pick-up for the first time since moving to Baltimore the other day. I was jogging through a nearby park, scanning the fields for a game. On the eastern edge of the park I ran past a man named Dexter carrying two pop-out aluminum goals. We walked together and talked a bit. I asked if he was organizing. He wasn’t, nor did he know anyone there. He showed up, like me, expectant.
Dexter and I found out soon enough that we were the only two native English speakers there. We lined up and counted off teams, eighteen of us in total. Uno, dos, uno, dos, uno, dos. We passed around and chatted with each other, deciding positions and talking weekend plans, too sluggish to start the game. At least I imagined that was the case. It’s hard to tell when you don’t speak Spanish. I did recognize that, like my first match five years before, I’d have to work to recognize my team. I asked a younger player why we weren’t playing shirts-and-skins. He thought about his English for a moment. “Um, if you score first, other team takes their shirts off.”
We scored ten minutes later, and my team cheered Camiseta! Camiseta!, pointing and laughing at the soon-to-be-shirtless opposition, some bloated, some bony, all dejected but ready for revenge. I cheered with them, although I could only approximate their pronunciation. Secretly, I wished I was on the losing side. The air was still muggy from Irene.
Some two hours later our game reached that browbeaten tipping point when the next-goal-wins rule comes into effect. Resolute but fatigued, we few pushed far up the pitch, bent on scoring and closing out the game. The plan backfired, as it usually does, as our five-foot-nothing forward conceded possession to the opposition’s star player, a fit thirty-something named Gio, who chipped our entire team. The game-winner skipped into our net, and the game ended there.
But no one remembered the humiliating ritual or who was gesticulating at whom. We were slapping hands and patting backs and packing up our mud-soaked boots. And a player I frankly didn’t recognize walked up and spoke the first words of English I’d heard since my teammate explained the camiseta rule.
“Great game, man. See you next time, eh?”
I guess I’ll be back.
It makes me think of a poem by Richard Drehmel called “Verklarte Nacht,” Transfigured Night. Steeped in cloying romantics, Drehmel’s poem speaks of two lovers walking through a barren grove on a cloudless night. The woman, ashamed, reveals that she is pregnant by another man; emptiness has driven her to sleep with a stranger. Stumbling on in doubt, she awaits her lover’s response. “May the child you conceived/Be no burden on your soul,” the man replies. “You will bear the child for me, as if it were mine;/You have brought the glow into me,/You have made me like a child myself.”
Sappy, perhaps. But not unlike most famously polarizing odes and limericks (“I swear it’s called ‘The Road Less Traveled,’” opines the lazy college freshman), Drehmel’s makes enemies for its overstated moral, its substantive raison d’etre – in this case, that love defies betrayal. And the poet’s message thus persists, even though we may choose not to accept it. The allegory I’m reaching for here – and there’s always an allegory – is not the story of Ronaldo’s surrogate child, nor does it pertain to Getafe’s twisted ad campaigns. It’s about me. I am the gestating woman. I am loved, though I never deserved it. Even when I wore cargo shorts.
How did you fall in love with soccer? Leave your comments below and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @O87minutes.