Friday, July 4, 2014

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and...

Today's the Fourth of July and what could be more appropriate and patriotic then to spend the day with my son by the telly, watching the World Cup. Why not? This country like it or not, is a country of immigrants, people whose relatives if not themselves came from elsewhere. And the game of choice in that nether-region called someplace else, at least in those someplace elses where they don't call it soccer, is in fact, soccer.

Now I can't think of anything more pointless than comparing the relative merits of one sport against another. Yet every four years, it has been a ritual in this country to compare the world's most popular spectator sport, with our own most popular sports, namely baseball and the game only we refer to as football. Every time the World Cup rolls around, we're subjected to the rantings and ravings of (soocer)football lovers about how their game is so much superior to the two American games because of its continuous activity opposed to the seemingly endless periods of standing around talking, scratching and spitting, only occasionally broken up by fleeting moments of action. On the other side are the Americans who demand our sports are better because their players don't spend all there time running around trying, and usually failing to kick a ball into a net.

In other words, each side is arguing that the other guy's sport is boring. Of course there are loads of people who couldn't care less because to them, ALL sports are boring.

I would argue that you get out of any sport, just like anything else in life, exactly what you put into it. If you've grown up with a game, played it, and/or ever rooted for a particular team at some point in your life, chances are you will appreciate that sport as an adult. You'll understand the intricacies of the game, appreciate the tactics and strategies of the players and coaches, and revel in the skill and mastery of those performing at the absolute highest level of their profession.

If none of the above applies, then a sport is nothing more than some guys kicking a ball around a field, a guy throwing a ball at another guy who's trying to hit it with a stick, or a bunch of guys trying to beat the crap out of each other.

The best thing I ever read about soccer was a beautiful piece called: If God Existed, He'd be a Solid Midfielder*. It was written by a fellow named Aleksandar Hemon from Sarajevo, who found himself stranded in Chicago as he was visiting the city exactly at the moment when civil war broke out in his country, Bosnia-Herzegovina. One of his great passions was playing soccer, and not being able to play regularly while living in a foreign city left him out "at sea, mentally and physically." Fortunately this being a great soccer town if you know where to look,  Hemon found a regular pick-up game along the lake in Uptown which was organized by a UPS driver from Ecuador, a fellow by the name of "German." German set up the field, the foul lines, goals, and distributed jerseys to all the participants. He even set up flags representing the nations competing in the World Cup. Since he was middle aged at the time, German would seldom play, unless they were short of players, but was the full time referee. Soccer is truly the one international language as the divergent nationalities of the players in that pickup game attested. The regular players of that pickup game came from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru, Chile, Columbia,  Belize, Brazil, Jamaica, Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia, Senegal, Ertirea, Ghana, Cameroon, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, France Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Ukraine, Russia, Vietnam, and Korea. One the goalies was from Tibet.

This collected assembly of nations on American soil is not to the liking of everyone, especially commentators like Ann Coulter who last week wrote a cheeky article blasting soccer, essentially comparing Americans' quadrennial interest in the game and the team that represents them, to nothing less than the moral degradation of an entire nation. This set off a maelstrom of silly articles slamming Coulter and her piece, calling her xenophobic, claiming she knows nothing about the game, and defending a game that didn't need defending. Of course that response was Coulter's intention all along and her detractors unwittingly played right into her hands by giving her article way more intention than it deserved.

Anyway, the referee and game organizer, the Ecuadoran named German eventually retired from UPS and moved down to Florida. Without a credible successor, the Uptown pickup game dissolved. Hemon, the author of the piece, found another game in a different neighborhood, this one comprised mostly of Americans and assimilated Europeans and Latinos. He found there was something lacking in this game, the level of passion he was used to simply was not there. Illustrating the difference between the international game and the American game, many times he was admonished by the Americans for his intense style of play. They'd say to him: "Relax, it's only exercise." His response to them was : "...go and run on a fucking treadmill and let me play the game the way the game's supposed to be played."

In a particularly beautiful passage, Hemon described an incident that took place during one of the Uptown games. In typical Chicago fashion, the temperature dropped about thirty degrees and a rain storm "started at the other end of the field and then moved across it towards the far goal, steadily advancing, like a German World Cup team." The power of the storm forced the players to abandon the pitch and make a beeline for German's van. All the players that is except for the goalie and the rest of his Tibetan friends who continued to play in the rain...
as if running in slow motion on the surface of a placid river. The ground is giving off vapour, the mist touching their ankles, at at moments it seems that they're levitating a few inches above the ground, untouched by the flood. 
One of the other players and his wife...
are watching them with perfect calm, as if nothing could ever harm them. They see one of the Tibetans scoring a goal, the rain-heavy ball sliding between the goalie's hands. The goalie is untroubled, smiling, and from where I am, he could be the Dalai Lama himself.
Hemon concludes this passage by describing absolute perfection. He is writing specifically about soccer but it could apply to any game or in fact the perfect moment in any field of endeavor:
...the moment of transcendence that might be familiar to those who practice sports with other people; the moment arising from the chaos of the game, when all your teammates occupy the ideal position on the field; the universe seems to be arranged by a meaningful will that is not yours; the moment that perishes - as moments tend to - when you complete the pass; and all you have left is a vague, physical, orgasmic memory of the instant you were completely connected with the world around you.
It may be only a game but we all should be so lucky to experience such a moment.

*Aleksander Harmon, "If God Existed, He'd be a Solid Midfielder", Granata, ©2009, Granta Publications

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