There’s now a soccer league, or, as the rest of the world calls it, football, in Japan for players who are over eighty. This is such a brilliant idea, although I think it’s diminished slightly by the fact that most of the octogenarian players are former professionals who’ve been out of the game for a few decades. It’s great that they’re still around and still able to get out on the pitch but I feel like players who’ve had glory days should, especially by the time they’ve passed threescore and twenty, step aside and let non-pros have a chance at making a goal or two. Maybe there are some players who’ve reached that age who were never that great at soccer in their youth but feel they have a better chance at competing against peers who haven’t had a couple of hip replacements. Maybe there are players who didn’t really have an interest in soccer when they were young but got pushed out onto the field by their parents and played miserably, without even really knowing what they were doing, would like another chance at the game late in life, having developed an appreciation for it in the intervening decades.
Yes, I am talking about myself, even though I’ve still got a few intervening decades before I reach my eighties. I didn’t really want to play soccer, but my parents told me to at least try it. So in the fall of third grade, after I went home from school each day, I’d go to another school for an hour or so of soccer practice. Then on Saturday mornings, instead of sleeping late and watching cartoons, I’d get up early and go run around a field for a couple of hours, which wasn’t that much fun in shorts, and in my case it was mostly just standing around because I didn’t have much idea what was going on. I have a vague idea that our team wasn’t very good and that we lost most of our games, but because I didn’t really know what was going on I was just waiting for the final whistle when we’d shake hands with the opposing team and then we’d all get hot chocolate.
By the third year I actually got a little better, but it was also my last year, and I was still easily distracted. The games started later so I was more alert on the field but we’d also moved to a different field that was next to a wooded area that looked swampy. Whenever there was any downtime—when we weren’t practicing kicking goals or doing laps around the field—I’d look longingly at the swamp and think I’d much rather be exploring it. But at least some of the time I was actually engaged in the game, even if I still hadn’t entirely figured out what was going on.
One Saturday morning, before a game was about to start, I was standing off to the side. A few guys on my team were kicking a ball around. I tried to get involved but they were top players and, while I don’t think they told me to go away, they weren’t interested in me joining them either. So I shrugged and walked away.
At that point a really old man—I think he was someone’s grandfather, or maybe great grandfather, who was an occasional presence at games—walked over to me and just started yelling at me. He told me I needed to pay attention, be aggressive, get out there and work or I’d never be any good as a player. He told me I was useless, that what I was doing was terrible, that it was important to focus, give it my all, and work for the team.
Even in sixth grade this kind of dressing down, especially by an adult, should have sent me off sobbing to hide in the backseat of my parents’ car, but it was so weird that this complete stranger focused on me I was certain he had me confused with somebody else. I knew I wasn’t much of a player but I also knew I really didn’t care enough for this warped version of a pep talk from a guy who, judging by the thickness of his glasses and the cloudiness of his eyes, could have easily been talking to one of the goalposts, to affect me.
It also helped that someone from my team, a tall, redhaired kid named Chuck who, like me, was a low-ranking player but still better than I was, came over and said, “Hey, Chris, come kick the ball around with us!” He was with a group that wasn’t that good but was just killing time before the game started, but that didn’t matter. Just like that I was released from the baleful rantings of a complete stranger and welcomed into a group that I’d never really felt I was part of.
Those two moments—one bizarre and, in retrospect, really awful, and one really great and uplifting—are my most vivid memories of childhood soccer.
I wouldn’t mind reliving that second moment. As for the first, I think that old guy needed a team of his own. Whatever the source of his bitterness was he didn’t need to be directing it at a random twelve-year old on a chilly spring morning. Soccer is, to most of the world, the beautiful game, because it’s open to everyone.