June 16, 2006

Commentary:

That Passion We Call Soccer

By Eduardo Stanley

New America Media

What is it about soccer that ignites such passion in so many people? Though I’ve read many articles about it, none has given me a satisfactory explanation. When I see the excitement of fans from any country in the world, their celebration of victory and despair of defeat, I always ask myself the same question.

Why? Maybe the answer is in my own life, as one of millions of people who once enjoyed soccer in its purest form, during childhood.

I grew up in a small city in northern Argentina, where almost every street was converted daily into a small soccer field, without fear of danger or worries about safety. I’d get together with a group of neighborhood kids, and we’d divide ourselves equally and mark off the limits of the imaginary field. The goals were marked with rocks or someone’s shirt or sweater. There were no referees, and we didn’t want them.

Children have a greater sense of justice than adults. Disagreements weren’t resolved with long discussions and there were no fights. Common sense prevailed, along with the shared goal of playing and having fun. We usually played during siesta time, under the heavy northern heat, while our parents rested inside and stores closed down. The street belonged to us then, and only once in a while would a car interrupt the game.

The goals were set against an old electrical plant and the brick wall of a mechanic’s workshop. When we made a goal, the ball would bounce back to us, so the game never stopped. When a latecomer arrived, he was invited to join either of the two teams. The distribution of players was always fair; neither of the teams could be too much better than the other.

We celebrated each goal with the joy of those who live and play soccer. And we made lots of goals in every game! There were no breaks. The ball simply rolled on without stopping, and so did we.

Games ended with the strange sense that time had passed, for example, when the shadow of the workshop wall reached one of the goals. Or when automobile traffic started up again. Then we knew the game was over. Sweaty and tired, we would return to our houses. Who won? It didn’t matter to anyone because we would all play again the next day.

Of course there were also more competitive games, like when the kids from another neighborhood would challenge us. The prizes for winning were bragging rights, the pride of having won. But what we remembered most were certain plays and goals, and how much fun we had sharing inside jokes with our opponents.

As we grew older, many of those “opponents” became our classmates in school. There we formed long-lasting friendships, united by our deep passion for soccer and constant “Remember when we won...” which was always followed by the quick response, “Yes, but in the next game we beat you....” We were happy because we didn’t know anything then about marketing, fame, money or the pressures of life outside of soccer. Playing was everything.

The social environment contributed to our incessant passion for soccer. In Argentina, like other countries, soccer is the national sport. Sometimes fanaticism for soccer is taken to an absurd level and is expressed with violence, when fans of one professional team are upset by a bad call or an alleged injustice. Pride is blinding, like stupidity, and becomes a problem for adults that we didn’t experience as kids.

That’s why we were so happy. Because we played soccer and the streets belonged to us.

Translated by Elena Shore

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