The incident at the boys soccer game

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If you read the last post, about how last week my girls soccer team lost a game but won a moral victory, maybe you imagined I experienced some sort of catharsis.

I didn’t – at least not that day. Because immediately after the jumping up and down and smiling and post-match hand-wringing in the name of sportsmanship, the boys team took the field. If at the end of the last post you had pictured blue skies, now picture gathering storm clouds.

No matter the country soccer is played in, you see, in my experience there is far less holy joy to be witnessed in the boy’s game than in the girl’s. Note need be made of the adjective holy and one game I played during my college soccer career perhaps embodies why.

If you read the last post, about how last week my girls soccer team lost a game but won a moral victory, maybe you imagined I experienced some sort of catharsis.

I didn’t – at least not that day. Because immediately after the jumping up and down and smiling and post-match hand-wringing in the name of sportsmanship, the boys team took the field. If at the end of the last post you had pictured blue skies, now picture gathering storm clouds.

No matter the country soccer is played in, you see, in my experience there is far less holy joy to be witnessed in the boy’s game than in the girl’s. Note need be made of the adjective holy and one game I played during my college soccer career perhaps embodies why.

Our team got down 2-1, the only reason being, we insisted, because the ref was blatantly hosing us. The whole of our starting squad began pounding him with a tongue-lashing, expletives not omitted. In particular I recall an image of the team’s best player – after being dispossessed of the ball by a tackle that he believed only by the grace of God left his leg intact – sprinting back to play defense and screaming at the top of his lungs, “REF! ARE YOU F***ING KIDDING ME!” We eventually battled back and won in extra time. Running to commence our on-field celebration, we all made sure to dance past the ref, Grinch smiles on our faces, screaming with prolonged spite, “YEEE-UUU-SSS!” Never has a team communicated a message to a bad official with such unity: “Sir, we have won. Even though you’re a fascist, we have won.”

We needed to win more than anything and we did everything short of physically assault the referee because we thought he was in our way and at the end of the day we smiled about how we handled the situation.

We males refer to it as competitive drive – not a few others call it the need to rule other men – and it is this quality taken to its heights that made the Michael Jordan’s and Tiger Woods’ of our time the best at their respective crafts and simultaneously the poorest of role models. Emulating their extreme examples promises greatness, but warns of a life so filled with the will to achieve it that there’s little room for much else.

***

The boys on my team are only 17 and 18 years old, but already seem above all that, though not every boy at the game I’m about to write about was, which I promise to explain in soon, after I describe this boys team some.

As I’ve written before, I teach English at a Christian school. The kids have class until 4:30 each day, and after that have little to do. The girls walk around arm in arm gossiping about boys. Most boys tail them at safe distances trying to get their attention – some by performing impressive feats of strength like trapping other boys in inescapable headlocks, some by shouting loudly – and until the kids must retire to their dormitories at 6:30, life in Korea’s Shire continues thus.

There is also a turf soccer field about the size of two basketball courts planted in the middle of campus, and after school and during weekends, this field is always occupied by the best players in the school. When I arrived last fall, I was astounded at the result: boys of remarkable skill, the kind always bred on small pitches where only dribbling and FC Barcelona tiki taka passing can navigate a team towards the goal. The current team is good enough to challenge my college team, soccer’s version of basketball street ballers: few of them have ever had formal practices, few of them exercise outside of their pick-up games, and despite that a semi-professional team might come to their field and receive a shellacking.

Inheriting these boys filled me with an unspoken confidence, which I still carried the week before the game. But during the course of the girls game it mutated into something else.

An explanation why. Right before that girls game started, the referee noticed our goalkeeper Diana wasn’t wearing shin guards. He ordered her off the field to put them on. This was her first organized game ever, and now every pair of cruel eyeballs in the world seemed to be damning her for this sin she hadn’t even known was wrong. As she struggled to attach those pieces of plastic to her shins, she was bewildered by the turn of events.

Just in case Diana wasn’t yet completely convinced she was worthless, the side referee, a tall and solid American of about fifty, who had been all this time sighing in annoyance, decided to offer his opinion.

“Come on – everyone is waiting,” he said. “This stuff is basic.” As she labored away, I assured her that things would be OK (for a first-timer, she kept goal incredibly, as it turned out). After the game, as our camp celebrated – even though we’d lost 6-1, we’d represented ourselves well – he strolled past and kindly told us that we had some fine attacking players, but then slipped in this: the other team had an off day, and, sorry to say, if they hadn’t we would have lost by a far worse margin. I pondered if the wife of the man, who hereinafter will be referred to as Mean Ref, had married him for his tact.

Sometimes in a game, all parties involved can be boiled down to two: you and the other team. When that ref slighted my college teammates and I, a murderous determination consumed us to exact vengeance on the other team. Last week in this game, I determined that our Christian boys needed to punish the opposing team for the way the Mean Ref had wronged our girls (Important Note: Mean Ref would be the head ref for this game).

***

Mean Ref is located in the middle of the field. He tweets his whistle – and the game starts.

The ball zooms around for a moment, like it’s confused. No team grabs control of it. Ebb and flow. Suddenly, one of their players goes down in our box. Penalty kick to the other team, signals Mean Ref. It’s converted. 1-0.

Our players are fuming at the injustice. They have been scored on by an inferior team, by amateurs who can only score if someone cheaply stops the game and places the ball in front of the goal for them. We begin to dominate possession. The game follows a pattern: we work the ball into their attacking third, they get it back and try to counter, we win it back at half, work it into their attacking third again. We nearly score on three or four occasions. During one, our attacking midfielder slaloms through three or four defenders – at full speed, a body feint right, a touch left: he’s taken my breath way doing this on the turf field at our school – until he’s 20 meters from their goal, and though he never winds up, the ball is suddenly airborne and CURLING TOWARD THE FAR POST!

But it goes less than a centimeter wide. Damn. The skier’s English name is Warren, but all around the cries of appreciation for his downhill-seeming run are for his Korean name: “Woong Sik – NICE-A!”

***

Rossi has been sent off. He is our center back and toppled into another player in the box, and now he has been sent off. They have eleven players on the field, one of whom is running toward the ball to kick another penalty, and we only have ten without Rossi, who has been sent off.

The ball hits the crossbar – miss. Still 1-0. It is halftime. All the boys gather around and agree: this game is erroneous.

Something needs to be done. Though I don’t think Mean Ref is the only ref who would interpret Rossi’s final foul as a foul, it didn’t deserve a red card. Someone needs to stand up against this…injustice? Yes, injustice. Mean Ref is conferencing with the other team’s coach and I march over, my heart beating like it has a headache.

“What happened? Why did you give him a red card?” I say.

“He made five dangerous fouls during the half,” I am told by Mean Ref. “I gave him a yellow card after the first few and told him if he didn’t cool it, he was going to be done. He fouled two or three more times, and on that last one I had no choice but to give him a red card.”

His reasoning is sound. But some force pushes me to respond.

“You told him…well…well, he doesn’t understand English!”

“Believe me, he knew that – ”

“Well, you should have told me!”

I’ve done that before, argued with a ref. Every serious soccer player has. Still, my heartbeat’s become a migraine as I storm back to the bench. I get to the middle of our players, and I turn around. The other coach, a barrel of a man, is smack front of me.

“Hey,” he says, like a gunshot. “Before you turned your back on us” – this deed was so terrible, he has to pause – “the referee was trying to offer to let you play with eleven players. You only have ten players, but he wanted the game to be fair. You can have eleven players, but he” – he points to Rossi – “just can’t be one of them.

“Now, do you want to play 11-on-11, or not?”

This man’s message distresses me. A red card means you play with one fewer player, period. Mean Ref has changed the rules of soccer. He has changed his identity: now he is Nice Ref. What am I supposed to do?

In an instant, in my mind’s eye, I see what: me stepping forward, brandishing my index finger with conviction, and delivering a soliloquy Shakespeare wrote for his lost play about soccer:

“No, we do not want to play 11-on-11. If you think that you’re better than us, that if it’s 11-against-10 you’ll go up even more, well, buddy, you’ve got another thing coming. You’re only winning because the ref’s called 1 million cheap frigging fouls against us today and two against you. He is on your team. That’s right, you’ve been playing with 12 players. So don’t ask if we want to play 11-on-11. Ask us if we want to play 12-on-11 again. When you do, here’s my answer: No. We don’t want another player. You have your 12, we’ll have our ten, and we’ll still beat you assholes!”

Outside of my mind’s eye, my athletic director is answering for me.

“Yes, thank you. We’ll play with 11.”

I am still so worked up that for a second I really am considering my mind’s eye’s advice. Finally, though, I relent.

“Yes,” I say.

***

Confrontation isn’t my cup of tea. In one high school Spanish class, after for the hundredth time cracking wise to impress a girl, the teacher smote me with a thunderbolt of a reprimand: “Raul, if you want to be a comedian, grow up and be one.” Before I set to work improving my character, my head hung in shame the rest of that day.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been Raul, but since then the discussions I’ve had that I thought could end in fisticuffs have been few. Whatever brand of unkindness the tone of this blog has ever assumed, outside of it, I honestly have tried to become the sort of person who’s extremely tolerant. Accordingly, so jarred was I by my behavior and how it was taken that in the days after the clash I had trouble focusing, even though I tried to fix the trouble as soon as the coach left me standing at the head of the circle of players.

“Guys,” I said. “I was just trying to defend Rossi. But that wasn’t the right way to do it.”

I formulated a plan. Rossi and I would apologize to the ref, hereinafter known again just by that name: the ref.

And that was it. We apologized. I thought all second half about the way I’d acted. I felt sad.

The game continued, 11-on-11. We scored early, and then we scored again. It was 2-1 until in the final minute , following consecutive scrums near our goal, the ball somehow flew in the back of our net.

At the end of the game, I apologized to the ref and the coach again. I have no real idea what either thought of this, but can write that I remember thinking over and over to myself: I can’t change what I did, I can only try to be a better person in the future.

Now, I think that that day I forgot something: I was no longer just one of the guys trying to win. There were more parties involved than just the two teams. Even though the ref possibly could have acted with more grace during the girls game, the events of this game weren’t related to those.

Rossi was sent off, but he might have deserved it.

I can only try to be a better person in the future.



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