Something To Look Forward To
by Seth Sawyers
In the beginning, I’ve been told, soccer in America was dead. In the beginning, it was something played only elsewhere, in Italy, in hot places. Maybe a foreign exchange student played soccer, or a camp counselor from Scotland, maybe some shirtless weirdos on the quad. Soccer was an oddity, like jai alai, or cricket, or kilometers. But then Pelé came and soccer became a little bit cool. Parents started up leagues, for their kids, for the boys who didn’t like football, the ones too skinny for it, for the girls.
The first thing I knew about soccer was that you couldn’t use your hands and that my older brother, Jake, was very good at it. He was ten years old and the best player on the Strikers. On Saturdays, in our little town way out in the hilly, sinewy part of Maryland, we walked down to Weber Field to watch Jake play. He scored on neat, quick strikes. He scored ugly goals. He jumped up higher than the other boys and scored headers and looked cool doing it.
My younger brother Ryan and I ran balls on the sidelines, sneaking orange wedges at halftime. At home, I taped Jake’s old, smelly shin guards to my arms and legs, wore them like armor. Then I threw myself, full-speed, through pillows stacked at the end of the hallway. We called that game Linebacker.
Ryan and I got old enough to play. On a baseball outfield that was all grass clumps and mud, the coaches showed us how to stop the ball when it came at us, a skill they thought was very important. They showed us how to kick with the inside part of our feet, though a few kids still kicked with their toes. Every now and then, some frustrated boy would pick up the ball and run with it and we knew he’d quit soon.
Ryan played goalie. He liked the diving, the dirt, the pointing and yelling. I was a halfback, the coaches called it, or a midfielder. I asked Dad why I was always halfback, and he said it was because I could run a lot and because I was smart. That sounded fine, but I knew the real reason was because I wasn’t big and tough like the fullbacks and because I didn’t score goals, like Jake. At practice, I was confused about when to run at the other team’s goal and when to go back and defend. I asked one of the fathers about it. “You do both,” he said, which didn’t help.
Ryan and I were only a year apart, so Mom bought us the same brand of cleats and the same brand of everything else, too. We wore Jake’s old shin guards and kneepads, which we thought we needed but didn’t. Dad told me I was a good passer but that I needed to practice my left foot. He showed me how to knock the ball against the wall in the carport, over and over, and so I did.
During games, all the boys swarmed the ball, like bees, great masses of brown-haired eight-year-olds moving as one. But Dad told me to hang back from that swarm, which I did. Sooner or later, the ball got knocked out, and I was there. I noticed that when the ball was rolling towards me, I could kick it harder, and further. So I hung back and launched long balls at the goal. And when, every now and then, the ball hit the back of the net, it was beautiful. I’d think about those moments for days. Back in those days you did not have proper soccer balls sized by age yet, so we were struggling sometimes.
This isn’t about glory, about goals, or about girls. There were girls, but much later, and not because of soccer or any other kind of sport. But I kept playing, and so what to say about me and high school and soccer? I wasn’t great, wasn’t awful. I hated the running at practice—the conditioning, the coaches called it—but liked the scrimmages, the games. I liked the little things done well: the breaking up of plays, the perfect little passes that no one noticed except you and your parents and maybe your coach. I was too timid, I can see now, but had played for too long to be terrible. I liked hanging with the guys, chipping in for Pizza Hut before games, meeting at Constitution Park afterwards for a cigarette. We talked about who had the best shoes. Being on the soccer team didn’t impress anyone at school—that was for the football team—but we felt part of a small club and liked it.
Then I was a senior in high school, 17 years old. This was 1994. We had no teams to root for. But I was curious, and so I read a Sports Illustrated profile on Roberto Baggio, the goal-scoring Italian. I knew he was a Buddhist, and a little odd. I liked that. We knew who Alexi Lalas was, the tall, pale American with the crazy red goatee. We knew Cobi Jones and his fat dreadlocks.
And then, once my last year of soccer ended, it really ended. I went off to college in a big city, where there were lots of girls but not much soccer. At college, everyone who did play soccer was either from Africa or was a shirtless weirdo who played pickup games on the quad. I don’t know which world, exactly, I lived in, but it wasn’t that one.
I didn’t forget about soccer, exactly, but soccer was nothing compared with Hemingway or Radiohead or staying up late on a thousand different nights to drink beer in a thousand living rooms, laughing late into the night on a thousand front stoops. Soccer was nothing compared with lithe, poetry-reading redheads in tight jeans, nothing next to this bright, strange, confusing world of dark rock clubs and libraries and second-hand couches. Nothing compared with holding a girl so close you could feel her heartbeat through her hot skin. This new world was all I could see, all I wanted to see, and soccer was one of those things from back then, from before all this, when the world was quiet and small, before everything got so fast.
And, yet, I couldn’t cut it out. I’ve never been able to resist kicking stuff: hunks of old snow on sidewalks, volleyballs on the carpet, anything that would roll. I loved the feeling of really cracking something, planting with my left and driving through with my right. It satisfied, like stroking a fat fastball into left-center, or eating a good tuna sandwich for lunch, or the nailing of the first paragraph, that feeling of typing, thinking, typing, pulling back the bowstring and letting go, making a perfect feeling fly perfectly.
After college, my buddy was stringing high school sports for a small paper, and he got me some work. They paid $35 a story. My first byline was for a cross-country meet, a sport about which I knew nothing. They had me do some girls’ basketball. Then I got a soccer game, and I thought: I can do this.
It was two all-white suburban schools going at it in the state playoffs. As soon as I sat in the little press box, it all came back. Right away I recognized the constant motion, the quick, almost silent little one-twos, the beautiful through passes, the ugly scrambles in front of goal, the way a long, flat shot curled around the inside of the net, the explosion of ecstasy from the kid who’d nailed it. Afterwards, down on the field interviewing the winning coach, I could smell the grass and mud, and I missed it. I remembered the feeling of scraping the stuff out from between my cleats, poking at it with a stick when it wouldn’t budge.
I turned the stringing into a full-time job covering news but got tired of that and went to grad school in the South. Looking for some exercise, I happened onto an intramural team made up of guys who looked like me. They could do things with the ball I’d only seen on TV, and a few had played college ball, but we were all out of shape and so I kept up well enough. I even scored a goal by hanging back on a corner kick. A left-footed goal, a nice one. I remember that the other teams we played were mostly engineering students from Nigeria, Turkey, Greece. They made fun of us, the out-of-shape Americans. I huffed my way through a few more games but the season ended with the semester and that was it.
Anyway, I had chapters to write, papers to grade. Mainly, though, I was even deeper into Hemingway by then, along with Roth and Didion and Whitman and Dillard and Melville. I had a picture in my head of who I wanted to be and I bent myself to it. I was trying, very hard, to become a certain kind of young man, one who talked books, ate well when he could afford it, and who knew pretty girls with mild attitude problems. I was trying very hard not to fit in. I was trying something on, and I was beginning to like it, or at least some of it. It wasn’t until later that I figured out there was a price to pay for all this twisting into shape, all this change, all this naked wanting.
Suffice it to say that, for a long time, I kept these two worlds apart. For a long time, I thought it best that the ideas and stories and the books-and-movies talk should take up most of the space in that little apartment, and that the cleats and balls and mud should stay way over there, in their corner, to come out only when called upon, or just every now and then, for old time’s sake.
But then, every four years, the World Cup came around. I’ll admit that at first I liked it because it was all “us against them,” all “USA against everyone else.” In 1994, we gathered around the big TV in the living room for the knockout-round game against Brazil. It was the first time I could remember my whole family watching an entire soccer game on TV. Mom put out chips and dip. We could tell Brazil was better, and when Tab Ramos took that nasty elbow to the temple, we all screamed for the red card. It felt good when we got it, and it gave us a chance. We didn’t know most of our guys’ names, but for a couple of hours, at least, we knew who we were for and who we were against.
I watched nearly every game in 1998. I was home from college, looped up on painkillers after a hernia surgery. Again, we got together to watch the Iran game, shouting at the TV together, shouting at our guys too. In 2002, I was working at a newspaper. I didn’t have cable, so for the first game, against Portugal, I met Jake at his house at six in the morning. He’d just gotten a new espresso maker and made us cappuccinos, which zinged us up good. After Brian McBride’s diving header made it 3-0, I screamed so loud that Jake’s girlfriend came downstairs to ask me to keep quiet.
By 2006, I was out of grad school and in a corporate job, making decent money for the first time in my life. I watched the Italy game with Jake, again at his house because I still didn’t have cable. I remember yelling for Eddie Johnson to get subbed in because I was sure he could break the tie. For the Ghana game, I took a long lunch at a place called Rocky Run. But, in the end, Claudio Reyna turned the ball over, Ghana got an easy goal, and then the World Cup was over, again. I left Rocky Run in a bad mood and after that I went back to work for another couple of years.
But, this last time, something stuck. I was spending a lot of time sitting at a computer, and suddenly there was always something to read, three or four or twenty stories a day. I read everything I could find in The New York Times, The Washington Post, in Sports Illustrated, every preview and game story the Associated Press put out. I grew to like certain players more than others. I was slipping, I can see now, into a mild fanaticism, a devotion, a kind of half-religion, a fragile faith in a single soccer team, a reason to watch, to hope, to care. Perhaps the intensity with which soccer grabbed me says something about the job I had, the one with all that computer time.
I was learning quickly now, making up for all that time not caring. Soon, it was hard to remember the time when I didn’t care so much. I could see the wide-angle picture: that, in the grand scheme, the U.S. was getting better but that we were still way behind. I began to see that we were still mostly just messing around with soccer, playing with it. The Brazilians, the English, the Germans, even the people from Ghana, they breathed the stuff. Soccer was no hobby for them. They didn’t care about basketball, or first downs. The kids there, when they went outside, they played soccer. We liked to win. They needed it.
But it wasn’t just the reading. I watched highlights, caught some games on TV. It really is a beautiful game, when done right, when all cylinders are firing. Eleven guys moving a ball around, waiting, probing for a shot at goal. And when the goal does come, there’s such a rush, a release. It’s like studying hard for two days and then getting the exam back and then first seeing that fat, red “A” at the top of the page.
I kept going. A year and a half ago, I got some friends together and we drove down to DC for the Cuba game. The Cubans were outmatched, but it didn’t matter. We saw six American goals and one very good Cuban goal: seven moments of the ribcage tightening, seven moments of the breath leaving the lungs.
Then, last fall, I was in Rome and Juventus was visiting Lazio. We hadn’t planned on the game, but I suggested it and my girl didn’t need any convincing. We could hear the singing from ten blocks away. It gave me chills. It was an early-season game but you could see it in the Italians’ faces, the way they sat still, not drinking or checking their cell phones but instead just watching, all of them waiting for any reason to shout and clap, their collective voice on the edge of some cliff, just waiting. They seemed to me a cult made up of 60,000 handsome, dark-haired people, each one of them moving, praying as one.
What I’m saying is that I had the feeling, the fever, the lust, like I’d never had it before, not even when I played the game myself. What I’m saying is that I shocked myself, was sometimes ashamed of how much I’d come to like soccer. Consider this: from a hotel bed in Florence, I’d stayed up late, checking a cell phone for updates on the US-Trinidad World Cup qualifier. What I’m saying is that I went to bed that night thinking not of Raphael or bistecca alla fiorentina or even girls but of a still, taut net suddenly, sharply billowing.
And so here we are again, just months away from the next big show. I’m reading, hoping certain young men heal quickly, heaping bad thoughts on the national teams of England, Algeria, Slovenia. I do my thing mostly in private, at computers, occasionally at a bar that shows soccer. I suspect there are others like me: fans who don’t wear jerseys, fans who’ve seen only a few games in person. We watch pirated games on the internet, scour the same five or six blogs, pull for the same fifteen Americans playing in the top leagues. Some of us follow Major League Soccer. I have one friend who wakes up very early on weekends to watch Liverpool games, another who flew to England to see a Chelsea game.
You’re forever hearing about soccer fans’ passion, about their love for the game. The idea goes that soccer fans somehow have more of it than Red Sox fans or Maple Leafs fans or fans of minimalist furniture. I don’t know if that’s true or not. What’s certain is that the only stuff you really know is the stuff that happens to you, and so I’ll say this: soccer has happened to me now. I’ve come to know it some and I’m learning more all the time. That is to say, I’m again a soccer fan. I am born again in it.
And that may not mean much in the same way that comic books may not mean much or how in the grand scheme being a Lutheran versus being a Presbyterian may not mean much, either. But one of the advantages about being a fan, of minimalist furniture or of soccer, is that you don’t have to care anymore what anyone thinks about what you like. You are, simply, a fan. Everyone else, simply, doesn’t get it.
Because here’s what it’s all about. I want the US national soccer team to win. And I want them to win because I want something to root for. I want, in the end, to feel as if I’m a part of something larger than myself. I want the feeling of being tapped into some current of energy, some collective wanting. My logic goes like this: If they win, somehow my fandom will matter. I know it’s just soccer, just one team from a country that discovered the game not all that long ago. But so what? It’s something to look forward to and isn’t that enough?
Seth Sawyers is at work on a memoir about growing up in western Maryland in the 1980s. His essays have appeared in The Baltimore Sun and in national literary journals. He teaches writing classes at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and can be reached at by contacting TiAS and requesting his info.