I actually had to look up the phrase on Google Translate.
“Can I play?” “Puedo jugar?”
It was a scene right out of a movie — the kid standing on the sidelines, watching a pickup game and wishing someone would invite him to join. Only in this case, the kid is a 49-year-old gringo, watching Costa Ricans decades his junior enjoy a casual Sunday-afternoon game of futból.
In truth, I wasn’t totally sure my joining in was a wise idea. I hadn’t actually played soccer in years — my last foray was in a Seattle rec league six or seven years ago, and that experience ended relatively quickly with a badly sprained ankle. Then there was the fact that I was wearing black khaki shorts and tennis shoes — not exactly proper soccer gear. But they look like they’re having so much fun….
So I stood there uncertainly, my unspoken desire no doubt written on my face. One of the players sprinted by me to retrieve an errant shot. He turned and said something welcoming to me in Spanish. I didn’t catch the words, but it was all the invitation I needed to ask my question.
He nodded and smiled. I dropped my messenger bag next to the other bags that marked one of the goals and walked onto the pitch. It was time to play a little soccer.
Born to Play
Like many kids, I came to the sport of soccer (as we call it in the Estados Unidos) at a young age. I think I was seven years old when I joined the second-grade team at St. Joseph’s Catholic School, my first organized sports experience. (Today, this would be a criminally late age to begin playing the sport — I believe that current municipal law dictates that all Seattle parents enroll their children in a formal soccer program by age four, or face stiff fines.)
As I recall, the used blue jersey came down nearly to my knee-high shin guards… but I was out there kicking the ball on a full-sized field (even little kids played 11-on-11 in those days, something that would change by the time my own kids started playing). And St. Joe’s was a force in the local Catholic Youth Organization leagues, so my team won a lot. A lifelong love affair with a sport was born.
The World’s Game
Much has been written about the relative simplicity of soccer: players propel a ball toward the opponent’s end of the field using any part of their body besides the hands or arms. The goal is a rectangular space framed with aluminum and guarded by the one player allowed to use their hands (the goalkeeper, or goalie). Get the ball by the goalie and you score one point. Some contact is allowed, but too much results in a foul and a free kick from the spot of the infraction.
There are other nuances, but that’s basically it. Compare it to the complexities and violence of American football (a sport that I love to watch but never played), and you will marvel at how such different games developed from a common root about 150 years ago.
That simplicity is likely one reason why soccer is the most popular sport in the world, with a currently estimated 250 million players across more than 200 countries (per Wikipedia). While it is not the most popular spectator sport in my home country, it does rank at or near the top in terms of participation. The U.S. Youth Soccer organization has more than 3 million registered players between the ages of 5 and 19. American kids still love soccer.
Soccer for Life
The game has been somewhat of a constant for me throughout my life. I played every fall through ninth grade, and the three CYO championships we won in middle school are probably my best sports-playing memories. I wasn’t a great athlete and switched to tennis in high school, but both my sisters were accomplished soccer players who eventually earned college athletic scholarships.
I covered the Stanford men’s soccer team for the college paper, and even wrote a column about a Cardinal women’s player who was making a name for herself on the U.S. national team. (Julie Foudy went on to become one of the legends of the sport and a two-time World Cup champion.)
When I moved back to Seattle shortly after college, one of my first actions was to become head coach of my little brother’s St. Joseph’s team (assisted by one of my best buddies, who had played with me at St. Joe’s). I continued in this role for several seasons, even watching my brother take on the goalie position that I had filled for a time at his age.
When my own two children came along, it was a foregone conclusion that they would play soccer and that I would be their coach. I took both of them from the Under-6 age level through about U-10, when I willingly handed them off to more experienced coaches. Both eventually found success and love in the arms of other sports (basketball for my daughter, Ultimate Frisbee for my son), but they learned about competition and fair play first on the soccer pitch.
I joined my first adult soccer team in my late 20s, and experienced the fun of playing the sport once more. There aren’t too many activities available to adults that forge the kind of team camaraderie that sports do. I’ve played organized softball as an adult as well, but the natural teamwork that soccer promotes was always more attractive to me. I’ve been on rec soccer teams with a lot of my friends and coworkers over the last two decades, and they were without exception great experiences. I also have fond memories of playing pick-up soccer at lunchtime early in my Microsoft career, when I was a carefree temp without kids or a mortgage to worry about.
A Few Minutes of Joy
Which leads me back around to that sunny Sunday pick-up game here in San José. The location couldn’t have been more apropos — the athletic fields that lie in the shadows of the Estadio Nacional, the sparkling modern stadium that sits just a few blocks from where I live and work. This is where the highly ranked Costa Rican national soccer team plays many of its home games, and where I hope to one day watch the USA Men’s National Team take on the host country. (The two nations actually face off in a friendly match in early February, but — alas! — the game will take place in the other San Jose, in California.)
I was quickly introduced to my teammates, who ranged in age from about 12 to early 30s, and play restarted. I got a few touches and began making runs up the field, calling for the ball with a confidence as natural as it was unearned. I made and received passes, took shots, and ran after loose balls. I blended in as if I’d been playing there every weekend for months.
The beauty of pick-up soccer is that results are irrelevant — no one is keeping score. If you make a bad pass or fail to get back on defense, and the other team scores, no one gets upset. Someone just retrieves the ball and the game continues. The object — and the sheer fun — of it is simply to use your body and contribute something to the play. To get lost for a few minutes in the simple enjoyment of a child’s game.
Players would occasionally leave, and new players just as quickly showed up to replace them. A few wives sat on blankets in the shade behind one of the goals, idly minding young children who wandered around kicking their own mini soccer ball. Everyone was relaxed, laughing and smiling, happy to be out there on a gorgeous summer day.
After awhile, winded, I swapped into the goalie position and gave the young man in that role a chance to play the field. (He didn’t stray far away, which gradually made me understand that he preferred the limited responsibilities and demands of playing in goal.) Getting back in the action, I pushed myself to the point where, stretching to make a play, I went down in a heap and slightly skinned my knee. It was a good reminder that my real soccer-playing days were long over.
After about 40 minutes, the game subsided when a group of players departed. I took that as my cue to leave too, grabbing my bag and shaking hands with a few of my teammates. I walked back toward my tiny room, tired, sore and happy.
I realize now that I didn’t attempt to talk with any of the other players, my Spanish still being rather limited. But then, I didn’t need to. I spoke the lingua franca of jugando al futból, and that was enough. I was understood… and I was welcomed.