It’s been a while. In fact, it’s been so long that I was not so much a little rusty as completely demolished by the elements. For decades, I’ve successfully avoided anything that might be described as ‘organised sport’; preferring, instead, the more disorganised kind. But there was nowhere to hide other than the boot of my car. And just like the boot of my car, there was no getting out of it. I was going to play soccer.
I’ve been watching soccer all season. More specifically, I’ve been watching a nine year old play each week and have experienced the unforgettable highs and best-expunged-from-your-memory lows as I’ve felt every pass, goal and kick of the season. Each week, without fail, I offer to take the field if I’m needed. And, each week, without exception, the nine year old informs me they’re not that desperate.
This, however, was different. Whereas I’d been baying at the sidelines for weeks, the official season was now over and all that remained was a ‘Family Fun Day’, the highlight of which was a ‘Parents versus Kids’ soccer match. Despite being repeatedly advised that this was occurring, my body refused to believe it and I was ambling along in a state of Saturday morning stupor. That was all about to change.
I have a history of not being selected. In primary school, my depth of my primary athletic ambition was to be selected second last. There’s nothing worse than watching your more gifted peers pause as they try to decide between you and the wheelie bin for their team. I had assumed ‘Family Fun Day’ would follow a similar format. Potential players would be considered before being ushered off in the general direction of the bench. I was prepared to accept my fate.
But things took an unexpected turn. I arrived and was advised that I was ‘needed’. By that I inferred that so few adults were willing to risk life and limb with a hoard of rampaging nine year olds, they were willing to take anyone. I then began to wonder if the other adults knew something that I did not. Exactly what level of danger was I exposing myself to? But within moments it became clear – it’s not that they were accepting anyone. It’s that they were acceptingeveryone.
As I understand it, in soccer each team is only allowed to field a certain number of players at any given time. This rule does not apply to a ‘Parents versus Kids’ soccer match. Instead, there were about thirty children on the field, all of whom came up to my rib cage, and around fifteen adults. We were outnumbered but had a distinct height advantage. As the whistle blew and all hell broke loose, it occurred to me that I had no real understanding of the rules, despite having watched numerous matches. ‘Offside’ has been explained to me on multiple occasions but remains as mysterious and confusing as the multiple-dimension Spiderman-verse.
There were people everywhere. My primary aim was to ensure that I didn’t totally ‘Boris’ a nine year old by knocking one over. More than anything, I didn’t want to injure a child and have to apologise to their parents. As the ball flew across the pitch, I took off like a shot.
A couple of things became very obvious, very quickly. Firstly, running up and down the pitch wasn’t a problem because I run pretty much everyday. This contrasted with some of the adults who, having started off strongly, were soon reduced to planting their hands on their hips and turning a deep shade of puce as they tried to draw breath. The second thing was that I had absolutely no ball skills at all. In fact, the first time the ball came anywhere near me, I fell over.
I used to fall over all the time as a kid. Then, suddenly, you reach an age where falling over is a really big deal. With the assistance of another adult and a small crane, I returned to my feet and kept running. I took some shots at goal (I missed) and managed to intercept and make a few passes. I was having a great time until the inevitable happened – I had to go toe to toe with my nine year old. Unfortunately, ‘toe to toe’ in this instance means we kicked each other.
He was the goalkeeper. I was near the goals when the ball arrived. Both of us charged at the ball and sunk our boots in – to each other. A shooting pain ran up my foot as we collided. The agony was so intense that I feared the limb was in danger of falling off altogether. I looked down at my meagre sneaker and then at his football boot and realised that I had come off second, if not third or fourth best. In addition, he wasn’t crying at all whereas I was a human puddle of tears.
It’s my first time playing in a ‘Parents versus Kids’ soccer match. You could put it down to a lack of skill but, truth be told, it’s probably because I’m not a parent. But I’m something. Even though we were on opposing teams, I could hear the nine year old yelling out messages of encouragement to me as I played. It meant a lot. And even if playing a soccer match in which you kick a nine year old doesn’t sound like the most responsible thing, there was no place I’d have rather been. The following day my foot was aubergine purple, but it was worth it. I felt, if even for a few moments, like I was part of something. And that, of itself, was amazing.