Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Break From Politics. Almost.

Soccer. I was barely aware of it until college, where I watched a game for the first time; mainly because “we” were playing Harvard, which featured a legendary player named Chris Ohiri. Somehow, I’d heard of him, even though I knew approximately nothing about the sport.

Ohiri had come to Harvard from Nigeria, where he’d been a record-breaking decathlete and an Olympic soccer star. As a freshman, he’d scored thirty-six goals in nine games, which, now something of a soccer aficionado, I find all but unthinkable. In his three years on the varsity squad he scored forty-seven.

The game I saw was perhaps the only one in which he didn’t, because we had a player whose speed matched his and whose only job was to dog him. Chris said after the game that our guy, Larry, was the best American he’d played against. I played rugby with Larry, who’d often run to the sidelines to suck on a cigarette and quaff a beer before rejoining the game. It was a club sport. Further comparisons to follow.

(Checking on Ohiri for this column, I discovered that shortly after graduation, then enrolled in Harvard Business School, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and went home to Nigeria to die. Because the ruling government saw his returning-hero status as a threat, he was arrested on arrival, and died in custody.)

I came to appreciate soccer when our son took it up, eventually becoming a striker on a championship select team. I knew I qualified as a fan when they attended an invitational tournament in B.C. Having been on call the night before, I’d missed their match against the Canadian U-17 national team. A dad told me it was the best they’d ever seen: a 0 – 0, or, as we like to say, nil - nil tie. Only true fans can say that about that.

I bring this up because I’ve been binge-watching Euro Championship and Copa America games. At its best, soccer is, indeed, “the beautiful game.” The skills required are, not to sound creepy, unnatural. For example, the first time our son received a kicked-off football, in middle school, he ran it back for a touchdown. Running with an air-filled, ovoid leather-like sack tucked under one’s arm is natural. Same with tossing a spherical object through a circular ring. Not everyone can, but our bodies are designed for it.

Dribbling with one’s feet at full speed, however, maintaining control while making balletic moves around opponents, able to fire off an accurate shot, wasn’t engineered into the blueprints. Nor was precision-controlling a ball flying at you from afar. With a shoe, not a glove.

Also, soccer is ridiculous. Because it’s very hard to score, a team can dominate play in all ways and still lose, by virtue of one sort of fluke or another. It’s not rare. Worse is that the higher up the professional ladder you go, the more the players are inclined to fake injuries, to extract a penalty call from the referee. Hurl themselves to the ground, theatrically; flail as in the agonal throes of death, though touched in the most innoxious of ways.

In my rugby days, there were no substitutions. Contact was full, forceful, and free of padding. If a player went down, it was likely for the count, helped or carried off the field, leaving his team to play a man down. Or two. Or three. Otherwise, we soldiered on, bleeding into bandages, bones poking through skin (if memory serves).

By contrast, footy-fakers pound the ground in unbearable pain, roll like British cheese-chasers, waiting for the referee’s call. If none is forthcoming, they bounce up, limp once or twice for effect, and resume playing. It’s a medical miracle, really. Homeopathic, almost. 

These rules could make the game less annoying:

1. If a player rolls more than once, he (women don’t flop) must leave the pitch for five minutes per roll, with no substitutions allowed. 

2. Players may pound the ground twice. Each additional whack triggers two minutes off the field. If the player pops right up, the minutes are doubled.

3. Faked damaged limbs will be quick-dry casted for the remainder of the game.

4. Political candidates must explain corner kicks, penalty kicks, and the off-sides rule; any that votes to prohibit teaching about racism may never use the term “cancel culture.”

5. While watching replays of consecutive nil-nil soccer games nonstop for twenty-four hours, people who believe Trump will return as “president” in August must locate the Constitution’s Reinstatement Clause and speak in public to explain it.


  1. No one played soccer when I was in high school in Wisconsin, except one time in a PE class. We had no idea what we were doing and a few of us, who had actually listened to our teacher explain the game, were very frustrated by those who had not. One of the football players was more interested in knocking guys to the ground. Most of us thought, "Well, I'm glad I'll never have to do that again."

    Fast forward five years and the XO of our cavalry troop decided to organize a GI soccer team. None of us had ever played before, except for one one-game-wonder, and not even the XO. We eventually kinda-sorta 'got' the game, especially when we recruited a soldier who had played soccer while growing up in Yugoslavia. He could do magic with his feet! Eventually we were good enough to beat some other GI teams.

    But not the Germans. Or the French or British. In fact, those few games were embarrassing. I recall the first game we played against a civilian German club. Prior to the start, our left winger (who was ourfastest runner) and I (center mid) had agreed that I would immediately kick the a really long ball for him to intercept for a cross. At the starting whistle I sent the ball flying and it actually resulted in a beautiful cross! No score, but suddenly we saw something strange: the Germans retreated into a tight defensive posture! They had never seen a U.S, team execute like that.

    It didn't take long, though, for the Germans to recognize that that opening was a fluke. Later in the second half I proved that we weren't very good. A long, high pass from the German team came flying towards me. It came up short and bounced just as one of the Germans rushed hard at me. I took a swing on the bounce — and missed it completely! The German player stopped in his tracks and, laughing hard, bent over and slapped both knees! I smiled back in deep embarrassment.


  2. Forgot to add that I really like your proposed rules!

  3. Soccer, like hockey, moves too quickly and seemingly erratically, for me to follow. I appreciate the athleticism of both, but the speed of it just confuses me!

    Here's my first and most meaningful intro to soccer. In the late 1970s I lived in Portland managing a record store. I met a young man one day who was visiting from Brazil and fell head over heels (is that a soccer move??) for him. One day, we were picnicking at a local park, and some younger boys were playing soccer when the ball went errantly toward us. Nando got up and did some fancy stuff with the ball on his feet, and kicked it back to the boys. He joined them for a few minutes, showing them some tricks, then came back to our picnic. I had my 35mm camera with a long lens and took several pictures of him shirtless on that warm, Portland afternoon, playing soccer. I still have the pictures, he is still one of the most gorgeous men I've ever seen--think Cat Stevens in the day, and it is a memory of a lovely and short love affair. He went back to Brazil a few weeks later, leaving me bereft and heartbroken. That's all I know about soccer!

  4. Oh boy...I am not sure if I should tell my soccer story...lmao!

    I'll get my chores done and see if I want to tell it.

    But for now, California in the 70's soccer was exploding. kids starting transferring from contact sports(football, wrestling etc) to soccer. Getting kicked in the shin was pretty common. But I never remember any of us 10-12 year old's getting injured or crying. You didn't wanna do any of that in front of the boys. (Girls didn't really play until the 80's, then that exploded in CA.)

    This guy is amazing. #6 to the #1 are really really amazing.

    I have 2 military stories...One I can tell and the other is'll post later on those.

  5. Soccer was a foreign word when I was in school but it became a big part of my children's athletic experience when they were in school. Fortunately, there were coaches who understood the game to teach them. Pat Sullivan, Dick Henderson and several volunteer coaches like Dwayne Lane provided great leadership to local teams.
    Michelle Akers from Shorecrest became an international champion during the early years of local soccer high school competition. She was awarded the Gold Medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
    I spent hundreds of hours on cold and wet afternoons watching my kids play this great team sport.

    1. We did, too.

      Michele Akers was one of our son's instructors at Cliff McGrath's soccer camp at Fort Casey. He attended two or three years. Got the award for "Best Offense," not that I'm the bragging type. He didn't get his athletic skills from me: I was big and tall, slow as hell. A rugby scrum or a football line fit reasonably well with my lummox-ism. I couldn't have made a soccer team if my life depended on it.

    2. Found her 10 seconds in! to Mia Hamm.

      That first team was so amazing.

  6. I grew up in Wyoming. Several grades per classroom, of which we had two rooms. There was football, and slaughter ball (soccer was foreign). We'd stand on the sides of the gym and use red rubber balls to try to "slaughter" the other team. You got hit, you were out, down to the last guy. Of course we weren't supposed to aim at someones head. Red rubber balls produced big red welts. The younger guys always got slaughtered by the older fellas, that was just the way it was. My daughter grew up in Colorado. T-ball was the big thing back then with soccer as an emerging sport. It seemed like there was always jokes about soccer moms.


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