A player takes the field. Safety takes a hike.

Bouncing a soccer ballI write four hours before I am to take the (indoor) soccer field in my first competitive game in Boston.

I just joined a co-ed league and I have yet to meet my teammates. It’s apparently a series of six on six games (four guys, two girls) spread over two months, a battle of the ages for a morale-boosting trophy. Sounds exactly like the kind of challenge an Eastern European man is suited for.

As I look at my gym bag, stuffed with indoor shoes, socks and shin guards, I smile (and tremble) in anticipation.

This morning at work somebody said soccer was boring. This argument doesn’t rile me anymore because soccer in America IS boring, and I believe it’s because parents waste tons of hours watching their kids play. And their kids, well, they suck (most of the time).

Soccer is an equal opportunity sport in America. The kids that play are most likely the ones that didn’t seem destined for quarterbacking their high school team or pitching deep into the summer in little league play. They play soccer because everybody can. It’s less a game than an exercise. As long as you don’t trip while chasing the ball–and like a swarm of bees they all chase the ball–you’re a soccer player.

Growing up in Romania soccer was a dictatorship of the able. Fat? Stay inside. Scared? Play and we’ll slide tackle you into manhood. A girl? Please, don’t waste our time–go prepare for motherhood.

I wouldn’t go as far as saying soccer was survival, but it was integration. If out of the 20 boys in your class you could make the team of seven playing against the other classes, you had some sort of life. If you weren’t good enough, simply being there wouldn’t help you. Not even your gym teacher would plead your case. After all, he doesn’t want the other gym teacher (who is taller and beefier anyway) to find more reasons to mock him.

Soccer is boring in America because it’s safe. Not only physically, but socially. And I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I will admit the cynic in me says nothing is worse than making soccer boring.

I am not much of a player. I barely made the first seven through grade school and probably reached the status of being fourth or fifth in rank on our high school team, but we only had 10 boys in our class. Still, if I am to rank my best and worst soccer moments on the field, safety–of any kind–wasn’t part of either. And yes, of course we were playing on cement. I almost never played on something other than cement until I came to grad school in the US.

Here’s the worst:

Sixth grade. Our team, the class of 6A were in the school final facing our arch enemies, 6D. We played 6D often in gym class and it was always war. We had two kids in our class who had been playing professionally (whatever that means in sixth grade) and the rest of us were not too bad either. We even had a great goalie, Vali. The game went to over-time and it seemed to be headed to penalties to break the tie. That’s when a long ball was lobbed towards our box. I was playing defense at the time and ran to head it out but caught it to late. What I did was give the ball a bounce further back rather than push it forward. What I didn’t know was that Vali had ran out of the goal himself. As we both turned to follow the arc of the ball, I knew I’d never forget this. I was watching the downfall of a potentially good memory. The ball landed in our open goal, and one minute later, our dream crumbled when the whistle blew. I had scored a memorable own goal and my classmates were not very happy. A couple wanted to beat me up, other cursed my mother. I thought it safe to stay home for a day.

And here’s one of the good ones (none of them can claim to be the best):

Senior year of high school. At the end of high school, each class gets to play a friendly game against a team of teachers. Since there are often not enough teachers to field a competitive team, former and current students join them. For their game against 12 F (my class) they had the best goalie in our high school, a slim and aggressive fellow that loved to come out and rough the strikers (I was now a striker after my defensive exploits years back). It wasn’t the hardest game we’d ever played and the stakes weren’t too high either. But we had a crowd and it’s always harder to play when people cheer for your team. But on that night, it all worked great. We thrashed them 8-3 and I scored five of those (or was it 5-2 and I scored three? Pffff, memory). Of those five or three, there’s one I’ll never forget. I got a pass in empty space and I was running at the goal, when all of a sudden the goalie charged like a bull. I couldn’t avoid him, but he was slick enough to slide into me, literally swiping my feet and tossing me in the air like a rag doll. I landed pretty bad and I could tell there’d be blood. I got up slowly, bones intact, and there was indeed blood from a cut on my knee and a bad bruise on the elbow. But the ball was in the net and the crowd loved it.

Update (a day later): Our indoor team won last night, resoundingly so. Final score: 13-5.

One Response to “A player takes the field. Safety takes a hike.”

  1. oh man, nobody understands soccer here!… instead, there’s plenty of impeccably boring baseball…
    but speaking of safety – what’s this american football joke? RUGBY, my friend, that’s a real sport.

    beats soccer. take that.

    though i gotta say – even if i was one of those girlie girls running ’round the block chasing stray dogs’ tails, your soccer high school stories went straight to my heart 🙂 man, do i remember those days in highschool…….. boys were so silly back then.
    not that much is different now.

    except it seems the average romanian kid nowadays prefers fighting against some troll in some dungeon while summoning wizards and building strangely designed 3D empires instead of enjoying the dust, the cement, the bruises and the short-lived glory of a goal.
    now *that’s* silly (or maybe i’m just old.)

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