For the love of the game and the book, “Gods of Soccer”

The World Cup 2022 is around the corner. Much has been said on the complexities and consequences surrounding this year’s cup. This post is not about that, but it is about my love for the game and the recent release of the gorgeous book “Gods of Soccer” written by the team behind the podcast, “Men in Blazers.” 

You should know, I didn’t grow up playing soccer. My dad encouraged me to play. After watching me do drills with his team, he signed me up for my own team. My future coach showed up at my elementary school with a sucker and a smile. But I politely declined her offer to play on her team.

Me, long before soccer would find its way into my heart.

I was too afraid. I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt or losing. I was afraid of not being good enough. I couldn’t risk finding out I was not good enough by joining a team. At 8-years-old, the weight of not being good enough was firmly tied around my neck and always threatening to drown me. It saddens me to think about it. Luckily soccer didn’t end there for me.

I picked up the game in my late twenties because our dear friends, the Boudreaus, and my husband wanted to play. So after years of hand-eye-coordinated sports, I played a game I knew almost nothing about. 

The Boudreaus and my husband at an unforgettable, freezing cold US Men’s National Team match in Dallas.

I was awful. I did my best without really knowing what I was supposed to be doing. I ran. A lot. Everywhere and all at once. If the ball landed at my feet, I quickly passed it to anyone else. The ball was a ticking time bomb I didn’t know how to handle. Best let someone else deal with it.

But in sports where I lacked talent, I did my best to make up for it in hustle. I mean as much hustle as an overweight, flat footed, average athlete can give. 

If my husband hadn’t found soccer early, would we love the game as much?

We started out playing indoor co-ed. It was the easiest way in to the game. We didn’t need as many players. It seemed simple – pass, score or defend. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it didn’t matter. We were a team, we were playing and sometimes we won.

I loved the intensity of the game. I thrived on the bravado.  I once motioned “bring it on” as a player prepared to take his shot. This guy’s shot would have left a massive bruise or worse if it connected with any part of my body, but in that moment I was invincible. What can I say? Sports brings out interesting facets of our competitive spirit, sometimes also know as stupidity.

Around the same time we began indoor soccer, the 2002 World Cup  was kicking off in South Korea. My husband and I would fall asleep early and wake up at midnight to watch games with our friends, the Boudreaus. 

I still knew next to nothing about the game. I could not have explained offside at the time. I had no idea there were certain rules to throwing a ball in. I just knew goals, effort and winning or losing. Despite my lack of knowledge, I had lots of opinions. How my husband patiently watched games with my ill-informed commentary is a testament to his love for me.

My real soccer education began when we started playing on an outdoor co-ed team. Each season we played, I learned a bit more about the game. I learned rules, positions and strategy. I still freaked out when I got the ball and passed it off quickly. And while I was slower than most if not all and definitely less skilled handling the ball, I loved the moments when my body came between the opposing team’s player and their ultimate goal of scoring. Once again, I felt invincible.

In the years we played with our friends, soccer had become more than just a game. Aleksandar Hemon said it best in his essay, “If God Existed, He’d Be a Solid Midfielder.” He said, “I have the pleasant, tingling sensation of being connected with something bigger and better than me, the sensation wholly inaccessible to those who think soccer is about exercise.”

Playing together made me feel connected to something bigger on and off the field.

FC Azul Spring 2011 Champions with the trophy and shirts to prove it.

Life happened, mistakes were made changing the team dynamics, and ultimately our family moved from Dallas to Western Colorado. 

My husband and I don’t currently play on a team. We are less in shape and older than before. Living at a different elevation makes a high cardio game harder than before. But more than the elevation, I’m still a little afraid of not being good enough to play with others. I don’t want to disappoint people. What can I say? Old habits die hard. 

My love for the game is, and most likely will always be, much much larger than my actual skill in the game. 

But that brings me back to a beautiful book highlighting 100 soccer players. Soccer is not a perfect sport, and it has its fair share of controversy. However, this book reminds me people of all shapes, sizes, races, religions can make a difference. Win or lose, we can always make a difference.

The book highlights players like Michelle Akers and the group of women playing in 1991 with hand-me-down uniforms and little else but a love for the sport. In the years to follow, players like Akers, Hamm, Morgan, Wambach, Rapinoe, Solo and countless others made a difference not just for a women’s sport, but for a sport that was largely on the back burner of all other American sports.

There are underdog stories, funny stories, stories that begin as dreams and are fulfilled with tenacity and hard work. Beautiful stories.

I was teary eyed when I read Zidane’s story. I remember watching him head butt the Italian defender in the 2006 final. My husband and I “argued” because he felt this was no way to close out a career. I felt the justifiable fury of a mom who just watched her kid get bullied only to stand up for himself. Did he get bullied, who knows? Am I condoning the sudden outburst, yes and no. Do I love reading that Parisians flooded the streets supporting Zidane despite losing to the Italians in PKs? A hundred times, yes.

I read the story to my son this morning before school, and when I reached the line, “To love is to forgive,” I was once again moved.

I haven’t read the whole book yet because other things have to get done. I’m prone to losing myself in a book. But I’m already in love with so many of these players. Some I already knew, and some I’m learning about for the first time. 

The authors writes in the introduction, “Our hope, dear reader, is that football continues to empower you to make great memories with those you love.” I daresay, this book is just that. For me, it is a reminder of past memories as well as the ones to be made whether we are watching or playing the game.

So as World Cup 2022 begins November 20, you will find my husband and I hugging pillows for comfort. We will discuss the merits of line ups, our angst about coaching decisions and commentary throughout the game. 

You will find me glued to the tv throughout each half only able to break away when there is no active play. Soccer matches are one of the few moments I truly cannot be bothered with social media. It distresses me to miss a pass, play or a potential head butt. Soccer demands my full attention.

I will at some point utter to my husband, “remember when we would take late night naps to watch 2 am games during the 2002 cup?” It will be followed by a loud sigh to signal how much I miss playing. Which will of course stir feelings of missing our friends the Boudreaus and our old soccer team, FC Azul.

We will be on a roller coaster of emotion as we root on the U.S. Men’s National Team from the comfort of our own home. I will pick at my fingernails excessively to redirect my nervous energy. Our screams of excitement and despair will be heard near and far. Our children will check in on us just to make sure a bear hasn’t entered the house or they will cover their ears if they chose to sit next to us. We will stubbornly hold on to hope as we watch the USMNT play and no matter the results we will feel deeply for this game and everything it represent for us.