TORONTO, ONTARIO: I played soccer for three years when I was a youngster. I played ‘right wing’, although, I still do not know exactly what that means. I scored one time during my amateur soccer career. The important point to this story is not that I only scored once but that I scored the winning goal in a playoff game. At that moment, everything came together: My focus and awareness seemed to converge and I got control of that ball and there was no doubt I would get it by the goalie. I was Wayne Gretzky. I was Michal Jordon. I was [I don’t know any soccer players – the guy that married the Spice Girl?]. A teammate said, “you’ve sucked for three years but chose the right time to not suck.” I took that as a compliment. I would go out on top and quit the game.
The sport of soccer – and my apologies for my North Americanness – did not touch my life again until the 2004 European Football Championships. I was living in Toronto, which is a city that reveals just how fractured it is whenever there is a major soccer tournament. This isn’t a bad thing. One of the major reasons I enjoy living in Toronto is its multiculturalism and although there are many festivals celebrating this, nothing seems to bring it out like soccer, er, football. Perhaps the world should have an ongoing 365 day tournament.
I was living in what is known as Portugal Village, near Dundas and Ossington. The final of the tournament involved Portugal and Greece. Safe to say, the streets were flooded with people flashing red and green flags. I saw one unsuspecting woman in a car get accosted by some well-meaning hooligans – they were rocking her car back and forth. I don’t think they were trying to tip it over, just providing some encouragement to join in the festivities.
Before the game began, the Portuguese fans parted ways as a dump truck slowly cut through the crowd. It was covered in blue and white and the truck was carrying a crowd of Greece fans. On the front of the dump truck was a plastic dummy, limbs sprayed across the fender in unnatural positions and dressed in the green and red of Portugal. It was quite a statement. There were boos all round.
The next time soccer popped up in my life was the World Cup in 2006. For an entire month, flags were waving and horns were honking. At the end of most tournaments, there is a parade for the winning team. But in soccer, there seems to be a parade after every game. Each victory is one step closer and it all matters.
I was coming home on a Saturday night and ran into a man that worked in the office building I did at the time. I remembered him because he looked like Peter Fonda. He was a bit tipsy and squinted at me in mild recognition. “I know you,” he said, slurring slightly. After some small talk: “You watching the soccer?” I was non-committal, he didn’t notice. He continued: “You know why soccer is so popular around the world?” I didn’t know but I knew he was going to tell me. “It’s like life. And like life, soccer is a low scoring game.” That explains it. “Look at us two guys, standing here on a Saturday night. I’m alone and so are you: Our score is 0 – 0. But maybe the next time we meet, I’ll have someone on my arm and then it’d be 1 for me and 0 for you.” And with that, he disappeared into the night.
Last year I started playing soccer again. They were pickup games every Sunday and the participants just wanted to play, which is what I wanted to do. I never did well in team sports; everything gets so serious so fast. Yes, I was the guy that was picked last and I remember silently apologizing to whoever did get me on their team. I discovered that I’m not that bad, perhaps it's because I avoided team sports for most of my life up to this point. If you run around a lot and look like you’re really trying, this seems to be enough. You are not a goal scorer but a team player. I got my exercise; they got a body to even the teams out.
Now we are at the World Cup 2010. It has just started but you can feel it in the streets. The flag waving and parading is a slow build but I’m keeping my eyes out for more dump trucks – they are difficult to miss. I’m still trying to figure out what the hell Peter Fonda was talking about but maybe this time I will finally pickup what he was putting down. So, keep those scores low.