BY MICHELE HERMAN | We used to have a friendly Irish next-door neighbor. One day he and my husband got to talking and the conversation came around — as conversations between guys will do — to sports. My husband started to lament the long-lost pickup soccer games of his youth, and it turned out that our neighbor was part of a long-standing Saturday morning pickup game in East River Park. He encouraged my husband to join the loosely organized group, and took my e-mail address, which is the one we both use at home. My husband went one Saturday, came home with a bruise the length of his leg, and decided that sleeping in on Saturdays trumps soccer, as much as he loves the game. Then our neighbor’s wife divorced the nice Irish guy and we never saw him again.
But my e-mail address remained on the routing list, and for years I have read the prolific correspondence of this group. They don’t know this, but the “soccer guys,” as they are known in our household, are part of the landscape of my life. This is a bunch of men I’ve never met who talk about a sport I don’t play, but still I’ve developed tremendous fondness for Stephen, Eddie, Mario, Partha, Leith, Tauri, Blagoy and the others, even though they probably assume I’m some no-show Italian guy named Michael.
I have learned their weekly and seasonal rhythms. Every week one of the three main stalwarts puts out a call to see who’s available. This is followed by a flurry of replies, most of which say, “I’m in” or simply, “In.” But I read through because (being guys) they traffic in teasing and macho, but (being smart and funny guys), they do it entertainingly.
“Dear socceristas,” wrote one of them yesterday, “some of you may remember me. I’m the dude who scored that unbelievable long-distance goal and then proceeded to get injured, which some of you explained as karmic justice due to too much bragging about said beautiful goal.” Another apologized for missing the game because he woke up vomiting. “Sorry to hear!” came the reply. “Though you should know there is plenty of precedence for vomiting on the field.” Either he has a remarkable memory or a good imagination, because he then cites, term paper-like, eight previous games involving vomiting.
When winter approaches, they reluctantly head to an indoor field (or “pitch” as some of the immigrants call it) on Roosevelt Island that they have to pay to use. Lately there’s been much ribbing of Dwayne, who “always arrives at a prompt 10 a.m. for the 9 a.m. game.” Then a lot of “who knew?”s when Dean showed up twice on the week’s lineup, and it turned out there actually were two different guys named Dean. And the immortal question: If Sean is pronounced Shawn, why isn’t Dean pronounced Dawn?
The thing I, being a girl, find most endearing is the way they share their news: weddings, babies, travels (all of which have been called lame excuses for missing a game). One had his first film produced, another became a professor. Occasionally, they get together after work for a few drinks. In a sure sign of time passing, lately I notice there have been fewer newlyweds and more bum knees.
One of the guys has been sending around detailed and erudite recaps of the weekly game. I have special respect for him, because, as a recording secretary myself, I know that it’s hard enough to take good minutes when the participants are sitting still. Here’s a sample opening line: “The whites were well organized and generous. The darks were disorganized and selfish.” And some excerpts from the game played during the freak October storm: “While lesser mortals stayed at home, and the weak called in their excuses, 22 men showed up braving hail and sleet to play a beautiful game… . The hail had now begun to sting, whipped laterally across the field by a strong Arctic blast of wind, and the game was heading for a tense conclusion. Blagoy, in a moment of hypothermic madness, took off his shirt and had to be counseled by the remaining sane ones to put on something.”
Sometimes another guy will reply to one of the weekly recaps with “a few minor corrections/comments.” Here’s number 4 of a recent 7-point correction: “Regarding Mario’s goal, it should be noted that just minutes prior to that, he had missed an easier opportunity, fed to him also by Juan from the right to his feet. Credit should be given to Juan who had his heart set on ensuring that his fellow Honduran scored and succeeded by electing to bounce it off Mario’s head into goal instead of his feet, which would have required some intent and ability.”
Here’s part of another recap I like: “Leith, who admitted to having had a terrible game (blaming coffee), began to lose his cool. The disorganization and panic on the part of Blanco was not at all unexpected. They’d spent the better part of the past 75-80 minutes dominating possession and shots on goal, yet found themselves down 2 with no answer for the seemingly immortal front line of the Rojo. I’m not sure how old Josevi or Bernardo are, but between Pablo, Heraldo, Eddie and myself we’re definitely somewhere close to if not above a combined age of 300 years. And yet we held a 5-3 advantage as the game wound down.”
I keep urging my husband to play with the soccer guys, just once, and report back. Being a girl, I’m dying to know what they look like, and whether they’re as funny and smart and gentlemanly on the field as they are in my inbox. Would they welcome him into the fold? Would they be amused to learn about me, their female fan/eavesdropper/spy?
My husband, alas, has no desire to upend his Saturday routine of leisurely bagel followed by piano lesson at Greenwich House. But he has figured out a way to put pickup soccer back in his life, making him feel more like himself than he has felt in a long time.
At Pier 40 at around 5 on Sunday evenings, there are always guys ready to play pickup, provided the leagues haven’t hogged all the fields. These games are all about the kind of anonymity only guys can pull off. My husband doesn’t know anyone’s name, though he’s been playing with some of the same guys for years.
The games are remarkably international — one week a bunch of Senegalese might show up, the next Israelis, Japanese or Albanians. One thing is consistent: My husband is always the oldest guy on the field, by about 25 years, and often the token white guy. For a while our teenaged son would come along, and be by far the youngest. The games sometimes get a little rough. My husband has terrible knees, but is proud to be able to hold his own by playing a smart game.
I asked him what he likes about these games. He said it’s all about the soccer, with just enough talk to get two teams organized. He likes the way strangers from all over the world come together, no questions asked, out of a shared love of the game. I find this fascinating and alien, because when I participate in group activities, the activity is often something of an excuse to get to know the people rather than the other way around.
My husband learned to play soccer on the streets of Rome at age eight, when his family spent a year abroad, so he doesn’t mind when the game gets rough. The other kids lived nearby in a ghetto of corrugated-metal houses with dirt floors known as the casa abusive. There, he and his brothers were the foreigners accepted without question. (They were also the ones who brought the ball). He returned home to central New Jersey in the days before organized soccer leagues. But a hippie in his town started a phenomenon called Sunday Soccer that lasted for years and sometimes swelled to a hundred kids and three balls.
“The whole town knew about it,” he told me. “I knew I could show up and there’d be people.”
So he’s thrilled to trot off to Sunday soccer again, so much so that he invested in new cleats when his ancient Pumas (an object of great admiration at Pier 40) finally gave out. The games last until dinnertime or until the ball flies over the net into the Hudson. One day in the not-too-distant future, Pier 40 is going to be declared a safety hazard if it doesn’t first crumble to the Hudson floor or float out to sea. I hope no one gets hurt. And I hope my soccer guys will still be around to welcome my husband into the brotherhood.