In soccer crazy Europe we say the game is not a matter of life and death–it’s more important than that.
The saying doesn’t only apply to the Romanian national team trying to make the World Cup or our pathetic club teams struggling to save face on the European scene–this also applies to 6-on-6 backyard games where there is nothing at stake but the manly pride of players. A young Romanian male playing with his friends is not just kicking it around for exercise; he plays for a moment of glory and heroism, hoping his lousy job and fashion-unconscious haircut will be forgotten by the rest of the team. He plays to show he has balls–enough of them to pleasure a whole squadron of drooling 16-year-old girls, whom society has told that there is nothing weirdly creepy about being the love interest of men 25 and over.
Last night, my brother and I stood next to 10 men who felt more or less like the above. Battle runs thick through the Romanian veins and last night it pumped at full speed as rain was pouring and making every touch a struggle. For those who don’t understand–there is something very Herculean about braving the elements for the love of the game.
One summer night when I was a kid I stayed out late because the team from our block was playing some boys from a couple blocks away in a particularly charged encounter. It was raining, it was dark and the fight was won. My dad finally found me and hauled me home grabbing me by the ear. He administered me some slaps as we headed inside and left me in the hallway as he fumingly went to prepare a hot bath for his illness-defying-god-of-soccer son. I stood in front of the mirror, drenched and imagining I was Rocky being pounded by Apollo Creed (or Ivan Drago if you wish). There was no blood or bruises, but the wet hair sticking to my skull, the exhaustion and the eventual glory were close enough. “Adriaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnn,” I probably screamed at the mirror.
Last night was the first time in four (or is it five?) years that I found myself playing soccer on home soil. I was like a Major League Soccer transfer, an East Coast white guy from the suburbs who had spend his past couple of years playing with Americans of various skills and even worse, women! What kind of pussy was I? There I was on astroturf (which was locked inside a cage so the ball doesn’t fly to far), thinking of our Missouri based Church of Soccer, a Sunday morning endeavor that never got as intense as the hour spent with these local dudes. Back in the US, they thought I was spoiling the game because I kept score–they never understood how much I had lost as a player and a red-blooded Eastern European male the day I first passed upfield to a woman. On the field last night, I was apparently too relaxed for my team-mates, as if being five or six goals up was not enough. Players were screaming, yelling, shoving, shooting the damn ball from all angles probably imagining cameras flashing from all around the cage and scouts going “hell yeah!”
I felt as if I was wearing a T-shirt saying “This guy played in the US” and I didn’t know whether they would tackle me for that heresy or tackle me because, as someone who left to find the light, I wouldn’t understand know how hard it was to find a field to play on (yes, they pay a monthly fee to play in the cage on Sunday and Wednesday nights at 10 PM–about $300 for eight games).
But that was all in my head because I don’t think any of them knew who I was or how I ended up there. I was just the brother of a guy they knew, someone they wouldn’t pass to often enough because they didn’t know what he’d end up doing with the ball, someone who seemed to be taking it a bit to lightly in victory and they didn’t want to imagine that I could be smiling if we were 6 goals down.
The truth is I probably couldn’t have smiled if we were losing. I’m not that American.