Monday, September 13, 2004

First game

Yesterday was E's first soccer game. She is playing in a kindergarten league, which means that games consist of 30 minutes of ten 5- and 6-year-olds (five on each side) swarming around the soccer ball as it moves somewhat randomly up and down the field. E scored two goals, though one of them was an own goal. She was one of the most aggressive players on the field, and one of the few with a good sense of which direction her team was supposed to move the ball — except for a brief moment of confusion after the teams switched sides at halftime, which led to her enthusiastically scoring the own goal.

She probably benefits from being a bit older and larger than most of the other kids, and certainly from the fact that both her mom and dad have spent some time over the last couple of weeks playing with her at home. With her parents, she is uninterested in practicing passing or dribbling, free kicks or throw-ins, just aggressive one-on-one (which doesn't work as well for soccer as it does in basketball) up and down the backyard. I suppose it builds aggressiveness for a not-quite-six-year-old to have to try to get the ball away from an adult with some soccer-playing experience.

Adam Gopnik, in his fine book about raising an American child in Paris, Paris to the Moon, tries to understand the allure of soccer for the rest of the world, with its slow pace and low scores compared to North American sports like hockey and basketball. He comes to the conclusion that soccer is the most popular sport in the world because it reflects life — long periods of not much happening, punctuated by occasional bursts of glory. Soccer can be ambiguous — tied games are allowed to stand, there is no overtime or mandatory shoot-em-out to determine a winner at the end. And soccer, like life, is not fair. One can pretend that basketball is a meritocracy — even though the "better" team doesn't always win, the team that wins a particular game has usually played better during that game. But in soccer, one team can be much better, control the ball for 95% of the game but miss both of the chances it gets to score a goal, one shot not quite making it and glancing off the goal post and the other due to a lucky save by the other team's goalie. And then the other team gets one lucky break up the field, shoots the ball, the goalie doesn't quite gets his hands on it and it rolls into the goal, and the game is over, 1-0. The "worse" team gets its day of glory. Soccer's metaphysical teaching is the importance of celebrating any victory in a patently unfair world.

Growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, playing soccer was considered only slightly less un-American than being a Communist. Not only did it subtly undermine American myths of meritocracy, it was also a sport that boys and girls played together! I remember attending, with my parents, one of the first organizing meetings for the voluntary soccer league which I played in for several years as a kid. It seemed almost furtive, held in the basement of the Unitarian church. We watched a video about the Brazilian soccer legend Pele. Compared to the ruthless and bland cultural hegemony of football, soccer seemed tantalizing and exotic.

The teams were divided up roughly by the elementary schools we attended, but my primarily working-class school couldn't come up with enough 9-year-olds to form a team, so we were merged with the overflow from the elementary school close to the university. That first season I was a bit player on a powerhouse team; we had the kids of international students on our team, and they knew how to play. We also had a lot of kids from middle-class homes, whose parents would practice with them in their backyards, and encourage them in playing this weird sport.

The next season, soccer had caught on enough that my elementary school had its own team. The whole season, not only did we not win a single game, I don't think we scored a single goal, until the very last game of the season. I wasn't a very athletic kid, but I was a little bit taller, a little bit older than many of the other kids in my league, and I had a father who practiced soccer with me in the backyard. The second half of the last game of the season, I came up from the midfield and kicked the ball into the other team's goal — our first goal of the season. We tied that game 1-1.

Scoring a lucky goal to tie a game: not a great American athletic story, but it was my greatest moment of athletic glory, and I enjoyed it for all it was worth.

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