Q: Is he a jock?
A: Oh, no. He plays soccer.
-Overheard on NJ Transit Train, 12/06
When we were kids, my two sisters and I lived on opposite sides of the planet. We didn’t sit together on school buses. When we passed each other in the hall, we acted like we barely knew each other.
I wore black. I didn’t like getting out of bed before noon. I was the first girl in my school to take advanced calculus. I listened to The Police, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, The Residents, Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys. I read Dostoyevsy, and, worse, totally identified with the characters in his novels. My moods were dark, to say the least. I was a ‘non-joiner’, and deliberate moper.
My sisters ran cross-country, and were stars of track and field. They were well-liked, and socially well adjusted. My sisters dressed like normal kids – not girly girls, but down-to-earth, easy-going athletes. They listened to the radio.
I was against all forms of physical exertion – I brought forged doctor notes to school to get out of running “the mile” in gym class, and thought of athletes as proto-corporate drones. In fact, in high school I calculated how much gym one could fail, and still pass for the year – and I failed just that much.
They were jocks, and I was a geek. Privately, we lived under the same roof. Socially, however, we may as well have been divided by the Berlin Wall. (I’d of course, have lived on the East.)
All of that changed, of course, as we grew up – as adults we are as close as sisters can be. But now, I never feel closer to them than when I take the field as a soccer player, a sport I took up four years ago, at the age of thirty-six – as it turns out, I was never all that different from them.
Soccer was the only sport that interested me at all when I was a kid – we played it once a year in gym class, and, secretly, I looked forward to each session of the beautiful game. Like my sisters, I like to run – and, like my sisters, I have a fierce competitive streak, which was, when I was younger, channeled into a desire to be weirder than everyone else.
On the field, I wanted to take the ball away from the other team, I wanted to run, make the great pass, and win. But these desires were, I admit, faint – the whispers of a secret self. I could not have admitted to myself then that I had an inner jock. I was into punk rock. And Dostoyevsky. David Bowie. Jimmy Carter. And my whole being was organized around my mood swings – which ranged from dark to darker. I was in a near constant state of existential crisis. I imagined sport as the domain of the endlessly self-confident, as belonging to those with the singularity of focus that belongs to the unquestioning, the believers. I was, and am, an unrepentant unbeliever, a skeptic, and a questioner. And there was no girl’s soccer team at my school anyway. I’m old enough to remember Title IX, but too old to have benefited from its effects. Plus, I wanted to be Patti Smith. I was pretty sure she wasn’t into sport.
And yet whenever I happened upon guys playing pick-up soccer I itched to join them on the field. I can only speculate on why this sport called me – it’s the sport of the elite in the New Jersey suburbs, and I had an ambivalent fascination with the preppy girls and boys who practiced it. They had names like Trebbie and Trevor, went to private schools with the word “Academy” in their names. Girls wore their dirty blond hair in sleek pony tails, and had mothers who drove them home in Saabs. They had freckles and lipgloss. It’s also the sport of Italian immigrants, and still has a hold on the NYC metropolitan area. (What pizza parlor worth its salt isn’t wallpapered with posters for the Italian team?) This sport of elites and immigrants is the underdog of sports in the US, even though it is the overwhelmingly dominant men’s sport in the rest of the world – soccer’s invisibility in the US has always stood, for me, as a symptom of American cultural oblivion. Liking soccer was, as it has been for many misfits and intellectuals, part of being a non-joiner, a questioner, and an unbeliever.
That said, I never followed professional, amateur, or NCAA soccer. Even though I went to Rutgers, which was a Division I powerhouse at the time, I didn’t really follow their seasons. I kept my eye on the world cup, sort of. And, I must confess, while I watched a couple of the women’s world cup games that amazing year they won it all in Pasadena, and I was a graduate student during the reign of Lady Tarheels, I was a fair-weather fan – I joined that bandwagon late, and never got interested enough to keep up with the women’s professional league or the successes and failures of the national team.
And then one day a friend of mine asked if I wanted to join a game she was organizing – a co-ed casual game for people who hadn’t really played before, or hadn’t played much, or hadn’t played in a really really long time. The secret soccer player in me suddenly spoke up. “I’ll be there.”
Since then, I’ve been playing in games as many as three times a week – and, in the game my friend started, every single Saturday that I am in town. Much of my social life is now organized around being available for these games, and being in shape to play them. I watch Footballers’ Wives, I read L’Equipe every day throughout the month of July as France wowed and then stunned us in the 2006 Fifa World Cup. I’ve edited Mia Hamm’s Wikipedia page. I collect team scarves. I have pictures of Thierry Henry and Zidane on my refrigerator. I read Hamm’s book, Go for the Goal!, cover to cover before passing it on to my ten year old niece. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, makes me happier than a great game –a game when we all come together, raise our level of play, forget everything else in our lives, and in which I make just one beautiful pass.
Even more dramatic a change in my personality is the fact that I can talk about soccer for hours. When I meet another soccer player, especially, I become both a chatterbox and a sponge – after all, I am still learning. So when I meet a friend’s uncle at a party, and he mentions the league he plays in, I trail this poor guy for the rest of the day, asking questions about his experiences. When I see my nieces, I’m often in the back yard asking them to show me what they’ve learned since I last saw them. Since I’ve never been coached, your basic seven year old will have something to teach me.
Suddenly I have a whole new relationship with my pal Mandy, who has been an Arsenal fan for decades, and can tell you anything you want to know about not only her team, but the Champion’s League as well. And she just confessed that sometimes, she really wishes I would talk about something else.
Well, you get the point. I’m a little obsessed. With that, a youtube homage to the sublime Marta: