When I was ten years old, the soccer we played was defined by short passing and individual competence. After all, most of what we played was on Californian pavement with defiant weeds poking through the cracks. We played nearly every day either informally or with an organized team and from what I remember both environments necessitated players be skilled the ball, tough in the tackle, quick in transition, and somewhat ruthless in victory and defeat — at ten years old.
It was around this age where I figured out that losing was simply unacceptable; not because of the actual result, but the feeling of losing was what we loathed. But we didn’t dwell on defeat or sulk too long — that was a sign of weakness. After the initial sting of defeat, life went on and a new obstacle taunted our youthful exuberance. Growing up with Spanish heritage on my mother’s side and Irish roots on my father’s among friends of Mexican, Nicaraguan, Kenyan, Portuguese, and Bolivian descent in the United States wasn’t the typical American upbringing in the sporting sense. Culturally, that kind of amazing diversity is wholly American. The melding of culture, language (more specifically, dialect), socio-economics, and sport instilled in us a fiery approach to life. I didn’t grow up poor, but if we had any spare money my parents made sure it went to my three sisters and me. Their sense of profund selflessness borne out a dutiful motivation to ensure times weren’t as tough on their kids. Most of my buddies were the sons of at least one migrant worker or of single mothers and fathers. Those with still-married parents wouldn’t have known as much as the economic state of the pre-Dot-com boom of Silicon Valley forced middle class families to work more hours as inflation wrapped its gnarled hands around the state, and in essence, likely caused many spouses to “live divorced”.
But the soccer we played was not the soccer Americans were (or are) supposed to play. We didn’t have orange slices and Capri Suns. There were no chants of “Two-Four-Six-Eight, who do we appreciate?” after games. Instead one of Paulito’s or Gio’s older brothers made sure to tell us, “You see those guys? They think you’re illegals. They’re gonna laugh at you because some of your moms are maids in their houses.”
And they weren’t wrong.
Back then, in South San Jose, neighborhoods were divisive. Invisible battle lines were drawn well before any of us were born. It wasn’t odd. It still doesn’t seem odd but then again I realize my upbringing wasn’t the conventional ‘soccer upbringing’ that decades of suburbanization, sport-centric coddling, and ‘wholesome’ portrayals rife with a sort of Frankenstein-esque mutilation of the world’s game with rainbow-colored Mylar sutures, carved on plasticized smiles, and an “it’s how you play the game” attitude gelatinous ooze coursing through its body.
Growing up, every time I saw a movie with a shiny, almost fake soccer ball with black and white hexagons being kicked around a lush grass field while a token character with “COACH” embroidered on the hat complete with a whistle and clipboard — I cringed. Every movie placing a golden retriever as the Number 10 or a boy posing as a girl and subsequently dominating the field mocked the game we played.
By and by, as the years passed I learned to find the pockets of the real American game where ever I lived. In San Jose it was on the streets and drought-ridden fields. In Sunnyvale and Palo Alto it was at parks where as a boy I played with men who wanted nothing more than to win just so they could be winners at something before going back to working their labor jobs. At least victory on Sunday meant they’d be winners — if only for a week.
In Chicago’s western suburbs where my family moved in 1997, the game I grew up playing existed in indoor facilities with metal detectors at the entrances, at CLASA (Chicago Latin American Soccer Association) or Polish, Croatian, or Serbian league games — a rite of passage earned only after shamelessly showing up and proving I could hang or, showing them up in beer league tournament games and being “recruited” to guest play for them. The game I played was split between the elite youth clubs that were too expensive for both myself and my younger sister to attend and the underground warehouse sessions in Chicago I heard about through “a friend of a friend who knew a guy”. I willingly sought out these chances to play so my sister could be the one to play high-level (expensive) club ball knowing that the options for good girls soccer was (and still might be) limited. Hell, I enjoyed being a journeyman at 14 and 15 years old.
I think that’s when I fully realized something was “off” regarding the soccer I played and the soccer that was presented to us. My teammates and opponents in club soccer were equally-talented and ruthless in their pursuit of progress and opportunities and yet, the malaise of the American soccer narrative was one of passiveness. Sure, the professional game was and is still worlds away from the organic soccer-infused cultures the world calls normal. And yes, many of us who grew up playing the grittier form of the game felt orphaned as more plasticized and maligned versions of soccer were paraded out on television like some sort of sporting minstrel show where again, a golden retriever now takes on the role of a talismanic Number 9 and scores all the goals.
Then came Europe. Dallas Cup represented the chance to play against elite competition. It was also about watching the elite teams from Europe and South America play a quicker, smarter, harder version of the game than it was anything else. So, it came as no surprise when my team defeated two local powerhouses Solar and Dallas Texans with relative ease as most of my team was of a more ruthless breed. We had been amalgamated and deployed to destroy the confidence of the sons of ‘soccer moms’. And we did so willingly. What did come as a surprise was an invitation to travel to Europe with a Dallas-based team to train and play for an indefinite length of time. The only thing I feared when the coach approached my parents was their having to tell him and me that we simply could not afford it.
We couldn’t afford it. But my dad picked up a second job at a sporting goods store making his total work day upwards of 16 hours a day. My mother made sacrifices and worked overtime, too. In Europe, I met my “teammates” all of whom treated me with contempt. I didn’t mind, I was there to play. Over the next months I stayed and played in Holland while making trips with my local team to Germany, Sweden, Finland, France, England, and Denmark where I experienced the game unleashed. Not once did I see a symbolically sad soccer ball with black and white hexagons. I rarely saw lush fields as most of the soccer was in cages, on cinder fields, or courts with the grass being saved for weekend matches.
Sleeping in airports, taking mutiple ferries across the North Sea until I was seasick just to play in a few tournaments, learning how to actually condition a pair of kangaroo leather boots, setting multiple timers to keep from missing train stops, buying international calling cards in bulk, clutching cash, a few photos of my parents and Siberian Husky back home, and my passport, close at all times — all to experience world soccer was less foreign than it sounds. In fact, it was a slight return to the grittiness that accompanied the game I played as a child.
But eventually, all adventures come to an end and windows of opportunity slam shut. Through the years I excelled at the joke that was high school soccer and played collegiately as college soccer was the pinnacle for my generation. Hell, if you do the math it is plausible that scholarship athletes made more than rookies in Major League Soccer back then.
I still feel the same way about soccer now as I did way back when. The soccer presented to us is not the soccer we played. The narrative still favors those who speak to experiences of privilege that have become synonymous with youth soccer — flashy uniforms, colorful shoes, pizza parties, parents who know the politics of team selection and coach swaying, and kids being dropped off en masse in minivans. We are told the American player has arrived while ignoring the history of hundreds of journeymen who played and paved the way professionally before it was glamorous to attempt to earn a paycheck to kick a ball while being American. Sure, things may be getting better but that doesn’t mean they’re good enough for those who, oddly and fondly enough, share more of kindred upbringing with our basketball, football, and baseball players than we ever can with those play the same sport we did.
I am 10 years old and we have played the first half against a team of older boys from Alum Rock in the fiery competition of the Bay Area’s Umberto Abronzino Peninsula league of the early 1990’s. To my right is Michael, whose right eye is swelling shut; I’m picking the bits of dirt out of my reopened kneecap scabs, Ernie is arguing with his brother, and Danny is swigging water like a boxer spitting it out while locking eyes with their players, itching to hurt someone — and yes, we know he’s posturing, but they don’t.
We are up three goals to zero and we’ll score more and we’ll win the game, but it doesn’t matter because we have to win and they have to lose. You see the difference and the connection, right? Yeah, it sounds crazy and even at ten years old, I know it is, but for us, a ragtag collection of players baked in the Northern Californian sun — soccer is more than a game.