How I Spent My Summer Vacation

23 Sep

Throughout the soccer-saturated summer just past, I was a devoted spectator of the Beautiful Game . Here’s one of the more beautiful plays I witnessed:

I watched a defender slide across the grass in front of his own goal area, knock the ball away from a hulking striker and kick it straight down the sideline, over his opponents’ heads. It landed perfectly placed for a forward to take only a couple of steps to receive the pass, manoeuver around a couple of defenders, and fire it past the outmatched keeper for a dazzling goal.

Beautiful. Just beautiful. Beautiful execution, beautiful result.

And no, it wasn’t France vs. Italy. Or Germany vs. Portugal. Or Brazil. Or Argentina. Or England. The play didn’t involve Ronaldinho, David Beckham, or Zinédine Zidane (AKA the only world-famous players I can name off the top of my head), and didn’t occur before tens of thousands of screaming fans in Berlin or Munich.

Instead, it took place before a few dozen perspiring parents at a weekend tournament in east-end Ottawa. The teams were in the under-ten-years-old boys’ competitive league. The sliding defender… well, that was my boy.

I spent the summer in training as a rookie soccer dad, and like most rookies, I learned how much I have to learn.

At one game, I sat in my canvas chair next to a veteran, expert soccer mom as she egged on the team in a voice too low for the players to actually hear. It was like eavesdropping in on a prayer.

“That’s it, that’s it,” she incanted. “Go wide… See Jacob, down the line… perfect… now get in the box… good choice, good choice… get back, boys, help each other… stay with it… watch out for the tall kid… number 14… careful with the hands…”

I was more of a religious neophyte when it came to cheering on my son and his teammates. I knew it was good when they kicked the ball toward the opposing goal and not-so-good when the ball came back toward their own goal. Beyond that, most of the complex rules and strategies of this seemingly simple game were beyond my grasp.

Veteran soccer parents may laugh at my naiveté, but it amazed me how easily soccer – the organized, competitive variety – can swallow up a summer: Practices two evenings a week; Weekly games; Weekend-long tournaments; Games all over Eastern Ontario – from Kanata to Cumberland to Kingston ; Homework instructions from the coach to watch World Cup games; Letting-the-team-down looks from veteran parents when a tournament game was missed for a piano recital.

It’s thankless work being a soccer-dad-in-training.

Of course, part of my problem is the game’s popularity is a recent phenomenon in this part of the world. I played baseball as a kid. I don’t remember soccer being on the radar screen back in those ancient days.

Now, it is baseball that has slipped below the radar. My kids know all about Zinédine Zidane – from the goal-scoring to the headbutting – and almost nothing about Barry Bonds – home-run-hitting or alleged steroid-use.
Of course, many of the soccer parents I saw at games came from countries where soccer flows more naturally through the veins. My son’s teammates had family origins in many parts of the world – Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean – as well as here in Canada.

Befriending these kids and their parents was one of the best things about the Summer that Soccer Swallowed.

Even better was sitting on the sidelines watching my kid show off his developing athleticism, grace and strategic thinking. My first thought was always this:

Should I arrange a DNA test to make sure he’s really mine?

The second, more enduring, thought:

There’s no word in the English language to describe it… this is what nachas is all about.

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