Soccer as an Anthropological Tool
I was at the Drudge Report last week and saw this headline:
A second war in Europe? Of course it has to be the Serbians....
Let me tell you a story about my youth.
When I was a kid, around 7 or 8, I started my soccer career in the local city league. The other kids I played against were just other kids.
After a few years, I was good enough to make the local travel team. After a few more years, I started to notice that the other kids weren't just kids from other cities. One team was loaded with German Kids, one team was loaded with Polish Kids, one team was half Indian (from India) Kids, and one team was loaded with Serbian Kids.
Now any teams loaded with first generation ethnic kids were always tough. Their Dads were taught to play in the old country and they were serious about their soccer. I still remember vividly the 13 year old Indian Kid with a full face of facial hair.
But the Serbian Kids were the worst. There was a Serbian Orthodox Church a few cities over and the whole city team was loaded with 'em. The kids played dirty, the parents smoked like chimneys and swore at us, and one of the grandparents even spit on one of my teammates. I couldn't believe their meanness or their sternness.
By the time I got to high school, a lot of those kids graduated to their club teams. Invariably, their club teams mattered more than their high school teams. Our 5 best players were all ethnic kids from competing club teams, with one of those Serbian Kids that moved to our city being one of our best.
He was arrogant and rolled out with this quote to the local paper in reference to his high school teammates. "I feel like a man amongst boys." Now don't get me wrong, I sucked my senior year, I freely admit it, my confidence was shot and my skills were sub-par, but he was unpopular in a whole different way.
My favorite high school soccer memory was being down 6-0 and we were just getting killed. If it wasn't for our goalkeeper, we would have been down by double digits. After one of their forwards ran into our goalie, yet again, the goalie grabbed the kid and muttered something to him. Next time around, the forward ran up to our goalie and the goalie drop kicked the opposing forward into the next week. Bulls-eye, right in the chest, like in an action movie.
The ref pulled out a red card immediately and blew the whistle like his throat was spasming.
As the goalie blew kisses to the crowd, I learned the Russian Kid wasn't taking shit from anyone. I loved him and he was a great goalkeeper.
The Serbian Kid never played up to his potential and saved his best soccer for his club team. One of our less knowledgeable teammates asked "there's no Serbia on a map, aren't you Yugoslavian?"
Man, that Serbian kid was pissed. Pissed like someone kicked HIM in the chest. "You stupid Americans,-"
And all I could think of was "you Americans? We are in Cleveland, Ohio, we aren't in that toilet Belgrade." There's a reason that Yugoslavia blew apart, and I knew it was going to happen 5 years before it actually did.
My soccer improved and I hooked up with a men's team with some of my hometown friends after graduation. On the adult team I played with, we were the equivalent of a high school alumni team. If we played an Ethnic-centric team, we were going to lose. IF we played a bunch of duffers on their Work team, we were probably going to win.
The team that tortured us was the China Syndrome. A bunch of Chinese dudes, 6 inches shorter than us in cloth shoes. They ran circles around us and played kung fu fighting with our goalkeeper.
(I am not exaggerating. 3 of their players wore cloth shoes. Never, EVER, saw anything like that on any other soccer team on any other level.)
I would be remiss if I didn't mention this.
Pelé was the greatest:
I remember my first soccer team, the Eagles. I remember our coach ripping open a cardboard box with powder blue uniforms inside and started throwing jerseys to the kids gathered around. Coach Minjarik looked at me and said "what number do you want?"
I replied, "is number 10 left? Like Pelé?
And that was my first soccer jersey number.
Coach Minjarik was awesome, he was my favorite coach of all time. But he was from Czechoslovakia and he often spoke of the hardships of growing up in the old country.
He would lecture us that we were spoiled American Kids, playing on fields with grass, kicking balls filled with air, and shooting at goals with nets. Back in Czechoslovakia, they played in parking lots with bricks and broken glass scattered about. The balls were usually a knot of rolled up socks and the goals were chalked on brick walls.
I'll leave you with one more story: Pelé Was So Poor Growing Up That He Played Soccer With a Rolled-Up Sock