I’m writing this at 8 o’clock on a balmy June evening. The sun is drifting down over Long Island, casting long tree shadows across the road in front of our house. When I look out the window, I can see my 8 year old Charlie moving from the light into the dark. He’s wearing the famous Blaugrana shirt of Barcelona, the name Messi emblazoned above the number 10 on his back, and he has a ball at his feet. He will remain out there until the gloaming turns to dusk and I call him in. It’s a sight that lifts my spirts mostly because it’s something I never thought I’d see.
Eight months ago, that same child was out in the garden lying with a rifle in his hand playing war and disturbing the young couple who just moved in across the road. He was obsessed with military matters. His Santa letter last Christmas was like a terrorist’s to-do list. And when it wasn’t guns and ammo that tickled his fancy it was cars and trucks and all types of motorized vehicles. One frigid Saturday a couple of Januarys ago, I spent an afternoon at a Monster Truck rally in Nassau Coliseum, watching oversized pick-ups mercilessly crushing sedans and saloons, and I wondered where it all went wrong.
And, like a good Irish Catholic, I blamed myself. See, when Charlie was a baby, I coached his older brother’s soccer team, and he spent his formative years being dragged to every match and training session. He sat on the bench. He listened to his father shout a little more than he should have. Very, very occasionally, he’d participate in a pre-game kickabout. All along I figured this was only going to cause him to fall in love with the sport.
Imagine my shock then when it finally came time for him to play and he expressed no interest in the beautiful game or any other code. Until last winter. He spent a few weeks playing basketball and somewhere in the middle of that failed experiment, he started kicking a soccer ball out on the street.
At first I said nothing, almost afraid to jinx it. But, it went on and on. What started as a flirtation became a full-blown love affair. The kid who was only interested in things that went vroom-vroom or bang-bang was suddenly raiding his older brother’s wardrobe and wearing vintage (six years old) soccer shirts to school. One day, he was Cork City, the next Liverpool. Every afternoon, he suddenly was outside firing goal after goal into his big brother’s net while commentating in a faux English accent he picked up playing FIFA.
The morning after his first communion last month I drove halfway across Long Island to Upper 90 soccer shop so he could blow a good portion of his money on a Portugal shirt with Ronaldo and the number 7 on it. It went immediately into the rotation of jerseys that he wears to school, a fashion choice he takes so seriously that he devotes way too much time to picking from his selection each morning.
It’s not just that he’s fallen in love with playing the game. He’s become besotted with the entire culture. All he does is watch soccer on television. It can be month-old games on DVR or old World Cup matches or Mexican League encounters en Espanol. He’s not fussy. He will sit glued to it for hours. If the television is not available, he’ll go on the computer and trawl YouTube. If that’s taken he’ll borrow his older brother’s iPhone and find the footage there. Witness this sample conversation from the other morning.
“Why are you laughing so hard?” I asked.
“I’m watching this thing called ‘Ten Angry Goalkeepers’,” he replied. “Did you ever know of this guy called Oliver Kahn?”
This is how he spends his days. When he’s not outside kicking a ball, he’s watching people kicking a ball or reading about them doing so. It’s the most wonderful voyage of discovery, a boy finding his way through a sport, absorbing the history, a history that is oh so magnificently accessible due to the technology of the age. A kid whose entire sporting interest to this point revolved around cars and rifles is now badgering me with questions like, “Maradona or Pele?” and “Zidane or Messi?”
It’s fantastic because it’s so belated, so unexpected and so very, very different. When I opened the google page on my cell phone at work last week, “Pictures of Neymar haircuts” was the last item searched. Not what you’d expect to find a bald, middle-aged man to be looking up. The hair like the shirts and the cleats, they are all part of the new obsession.
A couple of Sundays back, Charlie’s U-9 intramural team were getting a bit of a tonking from another outfit. At one point, the coach signaled for him to go back and take the kick-out because he has, already, quite the shot off a ball. I could see by his face he was delighted with this responsibility. He placed the ball down with great care, embarked on what must have been a 15 yard run-up, and then tried the most audacious Rabona.
It didn’t quite come off but the idea told me more about Charlie than the execution. The other players were so stunned they didn’t notice the ball trickling past. The coach had his head in his hands. And as for the child himself, well, after the danger had eventually been averted, he looked over to where I was standing and smiled. The kind of smile that reminds us all that children’s sport should be about fun and trying outrageous tricks in the white heat of battle.
Later that night, when I was tucking him into bed, he called me close and whispered in the most perfect English accent; “The gaffer’s going to be well-chuffed with that Rabona.”
He was spot-on. The gaffer is well-chuffed with that and a whole lot more.