Monday, November 30, 2020

The game is beckoning but it's complicated

I recently rewatched Pelada, the 2010 documentary by Gwendolyn Oxenham, Luke Boughen, Rebekah Fergusson, and Ryan White, which is summarized in IMDB as "Away from the bright lights and manicured fields, there's another side of soccer. Two players, twenty-five countries, one game." Gwendolyn's companion book, Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer, which I have also recently read again, has a much more detailed description of their journey to create the film and the book.

Across two dozen countries - from back alleys to remote beaches to the roofs of skyscrapers - an eye-opening journey into the heart of soccer.
Every country has a different term for it: In the United States it's "pickup." In Trinidad it's "taking a sweat." In Brazil it's "pelada" (literally "naked"). It's the other side of soccer, those spontaneous matches played away from the bright lights and manicured fields—the game for anyone, anywhere.
At sixteen, Gwendolyn Oxenham was the youngest Division I athlete in NCAA history, a starter and leading goal-scorer for Duke. At twenty, she graduated, the women's professional soccer league folded, and her career was over. In Finding the Game, Oxenham, along with her boyfriend and two friends, chases the part of the game that outlasts a career. They bribe their way into a Bolivian prison, bet shillings on a game with moonshine brewers in Kenya, play with women in hijab on a court in Tehran - and discover what the world looks like when you wander down side streets, holding on to a ball.
An entertaining, heartfelt look at the soul of a sport and a thrilling travel narrative, this book is proof that on the field and in life, some things need no translation.

Each time I watch the documentary or read the book, I'm inspired to play the game that I have loved since I was a kid. It's late in November as I write this and the "nice" days in Indiana are starting to become fewer and more spread out, making way for colder temperatures and either snow or freezing rain. Either way, at my age, it's not weather that I find myself eager to head out and kick the ball around. However, after I finished the book, I pulled out the cleats and headed outside to kick the ball in the back yard. A pickup game in my neighborhood isn't going to happen and I'm not sure I would want it to anyway with the upsurge in COVID cases. So it was just me and the ball. Something that I don't mind. After a bit, my youngest daughter came out and watched me try to put the ball through an opening in the swing set and then she started kicking the ball with me. She's the only one of my kids to have never played soccer as her sisters were already in gymnastics by the time she was born and she has had no other interest beyond gymnastics since she was old enough to do somersaults by herself (which was really damn early).

My cleats are basically brand new. After coaching my kids for a few seasons, I splurged and bought a pair of Adidas Copa Mundial, the cleats that I coveted as a teenager, for no other reason than I wanted to have a part of my childhood brought into my adult life in a way that I was unable to do back then. That may have a tinge of resentment sound towards my parents in it, but I promise you that is not the case. I had a pair of Adidas Beckenbauer, which had the same look, so it's not like I was playing in my bare feet. I just always wanted the Copa's and that was not within the budget back then. So I bought them because I was tired of running around my kids' practices (I was their volunteer coach) and sliding in my tennis shoes. My kid promptly became injured and then permanently quit soccer, off to their truer passion and the world of gymnastics (meaning that I can no longer afford to buy Copa's again either...) so the cleats weren't used much.

As I kicked the ball around with my barely worn cleats, the pain that I often feel in my legs and the back pain that I have had recently were non-existent. As I alternated between having my stocking cap on and off as my head cooled and warmed, I made attempt after attempt at the swing set, slowly working towards getting my aim in my shot back. At my age, and the infrequency at which I play, getting my aim back is taking longer and longer. Yet, watching it ping off some other part of the swing set or off the fence behind it, I didn't really care. Much like many of the people that are described in Pelada and Finding the Game, playing soccer just seems to do that for many of us. It doesn't have to be for any real purpose other than just to be connected to the game, for however long we can do that.

If you look at the right side of my site, it describes the inspiration for the name of my site and I have probably mentioned it a few times over the years. For the ones who are just finding my site because of my recent appearance on Soccer Saturday with Greg Rakestraw and the Top 5 series that I've started, here's a reminder. 

I had recently read Finding the Game when I started thinking about names for my blog. I ran through soccer word play after soccer word play, with none of them feeling right. Then I remembered a quote from Luke when they were in Marseille, France, when Gwendolyn writes the exchange in the book (the same exchange occurs in the film):

"Five or six games stretch across the park. We stand there watching, weighing, still wondering whether or not the jersey once belonged to Drogba. A ball skips towards us. Luke takes off after it and volleys it back. He's quiet for a second. Then he says, "When the ball comes toward me, I consider the game beckoning me - the game wants me."

Towards the end of the book, she reiterates Luke's statement, saying:

"Maybe, like Luke says, the game does beckon us, calling us beyond what we had imagined, offering us more than we knew how to ask for when we were kids. The dream, it turns out, isn't the national team or a professional league. The dream is playing; playing is the dream."

Once I recalled those quotes, I knew it was exactly what soccer was doing to me. I hadn't played for more than a decade (at least) and the game beckoned me to be a volunteer coach for my daughter. Then Indy Eleven was announced and the game beckoned me to start writing about my experiences attending games. The Game Beckons seemed the perfect name for my site. Soccer beckoning me using quotes from a soccer player in a book about finding soccer wherever you can find it.

So for the past 7 years, I have been writing about soccer, but predominantly about the Indy Eleven, the team that finally captured my heart. I have a hard time watching soccer on television. I either feel disconnected from the action and crowd or feel like I would rather be playing instead of watching. Which is why I've never really found a team that I wanted to consider, "mine," (not counting the women's and men's national teams, which I definitely see as "mine"). I don't have any rooting interest in the English Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Liga MX, or even MLS with teams in close proximity to my hometown. Not being able to be in the stadium regularly has prevented me from caring about the teams even when I care about the game (in the broad sense, not the individual games).

Indy Eleven changed all of that. I had a team that I was able to see, in person, at least 15 times per year in a venue as intimate as Carroll Stadium. So I was a season ticket member as soon as I could convince my family to go as a group with me. I sat in the stadium on opening night with my daughter, my father, my brother, my cousin, and my niece. I started writing about the games. My personal experiences. Then game recaps and general tactical thoughts. What I thought about the stadium discussions and where it could go. Just a writing hobby to talk about soccer. The game beckoned and I listened.

Then I started asking for single game credentials. Then season credentials. Then season credentials for a photographer (my father). Then season credentials for a 2nd "photographer" (my mother) after some health issues started affecting my father. Attendance at "closed" preseason games. 

In each case, I kept coming back to something else that Gwendolyn wrote in Finding the Game, while they were in Italy talking to a writer, Cristiano, who reads from his book and then helps them understand his meaning (emphasis mine):

"He pours us grappa and translates the meaning, hands gesturing, "It is a story about an old man who imagines what he'll say to his grandson...that there is a god for the soccer fields, a kind of magic. Not the big ones - the small ones in the provinces." Head cocked to the side, he smiles, shyly like he's telling us something personal, emotional: "Soccer will give you much more than you can give it."

Every time I asked, the game kept giving me more than I gave it. I'm just a former high school player with an engineering degree that likes to write about soccer in his spare time. Yet, here I am 7 years into this adventure, as the longest continuous running grassroots media source for the Indy Eleven. 

There have definitely been better resources (I'm looking at you Doug Starnes and the Eleventh Heaven site). There have been/are higher profile sites (Soc Takes and Bloody Shambles). There have been other voices (Permanent Relegation podcast). As best I can tell, Eleventh Heaven; Eleven BricksBloody Shambles; Lady Victory and Her Quest for Glory; Brew Wallace condensed with Bloody Shambles; Target Man Soccer became Soccer with Brian (to recently become No Mean Soccer podcast); Circle City Soccer; Central State FC, all the same thing. All have stopped providing content except for No Mean Soccer. Even Permanent Relegation took a sabbatical before making a protracted return this year before COVID hit. I've spent press conferences looking around the room and finding me as the only one in the attendance. To be fair, I know that Kevin Johnston of Soc Takes/Indy Star has found himself in the same situation when I have been unable to attend a game or the press conference.

I just keep doing what I'm doing to the core 30 or so people who either A) care what I'm saying or B) are so starved for Indy Eleven information that they'll read anything that is out there about their team. My site views increased dramatically immediately after my appearance on Soccer Saturday, but I'm still not setting any records.   

I have become internet friends with a few of the former players. Peter Wilt continues to answer questions for me, even having moved on to other ventures. I have recently been part of the group that creates the Indy Eleven gameday posters, partially so that I can continue to be the unofficial poster archive, but it also allowed me to get one of my designs accepted (for a LIPAFC game, no less). I've been on Soccer Saturday!? How many other fans of Indy Eleven can say that?

Soccer giving me more than I can give it.

Yet, with all of that, it seems I still haven't built up enough collateral as a grassroots media source to get much information ahead of when everybody else gets it. Indy Eleven has always held their cards tight to their vest on everything until they can announce them on their own terms and through their preferred outlets and methods. Press releases hit my inbox minutes before the announcements to the general public hit my inbox. For all of the "off record" conversations I have had over the years, I know of multiple more where I know other sources have been given information, but that same information won't be given to me, even as "off record," if I can get a response at all. I've been given information and within 24 hours, the complete opposite was announced.

I don't want to get into all of that. 

All of this is to say that the game is still beckoning to me. I felt it in the backyard with my daughter and my swing set target practice. I'm just not sure how much The Game Beckons is still beckoning to me any longer. It's been an ongoing feeling for me the past couple of seasons. 2020 has exacerbated a lot of my glass half-empty feelings about a great number of things and my desire to keep writing on this site continues to ebb and flow, but lately dwindle. I thought the Top 5 project and its resulting press coverage from Rakestraw might spur my desire again, but the Top 5 series has already had its own set of disappointments. 

It's the off-season and players are starting to be announced, but after the first couple waves those will likely tail off too until late January as talk about preseason and what that will entail will be discussed. Maybe The Game Beckons will beckon me by then. Maybe The Game Beckons will stop beckoning.

Whatever happens, I know that soccer is always going to give me more than I gave it and I'm always going to feel the game beckoning to me. For that I'm grateful.