In May 1999 a friend of mine in Illinois gave me a soccer jersey as a simple gift. It was a home red-and-white Arsenal shirt (JVC logo) and a hero-shirt at that, with Dennis Bergkamp’s name and number printed on the back, precisely like the kind he would wear in the English Premier League. I’ve lately come to think that something of the shirt’s material has breeched the skin and found its way so deep in me that I am eternally affected, or infected. It’s difficult to tell.
Such is the way of soccer, I am noticing.
A couple of years ago I was working as a Security Guard during a particularly wintry season of my life. As I put it to my friends, with tongue squarely in cheek, the work I was engaged in involved no less than “securing various places in various locations at various times in a post-9/11 world.” Most of the time I found myself securing large parking lots attached to dying department stores and abandoned restaurant buildings.
John actually set in motion all our globe-trotting travels by uttering a single word: Arsenal.
Albert Camus once said, “Time is an irritating inconvenience between football matches.” He was referring to soccer, of course, and around the world, especially in this World Cup moment, they are vigorously nodding their approval. In the United States, however, for the most part, soccer is still viewed as the stuff of child’s play, and adult fascination primarily lies with the other football, and with baseball and basketball.
Something of Camus’ rumination on time, therefore, appears lost in translation—culturally speaking—in America, but after I met John, I immediately re-mixed it: “In the U.S., time is an irritating inconvenience between meeting another soccer fan.”
John and I introduced ourselves in one of those grayish manufactured trailers as we were frantically keeping warm on a January night to the rhythm of generator-powered heaters, biding our time until the next coffee break. Our security post on that night involved guarding two of a large hospital’s many parking lots.
In the trailer John and I became fellow-travelers, and the inevitable chit-chat about the weather (or a supervisor) was dropped in favor of another conversation, with a larger presence. John actually set in motion all our globe-trotting travels by uttering a single word: Arsenal. “The Arsenal”—as their supporters sing in full voice at the games in London. It was merely a word seven years ago when I received that gifted jersey, but over time a word seemingly has become a world where some of my deepest affections now reside, though I can’t altogether explain why.
His eyes at once transformed from resigned malaise to the joyous vision of potential life.
As it turns out, John hailed from Ghana and was curiously stricken with the Arsenal strain. He was in a bad way, as am I. As I rattled off a few of our modern saints—Thierry Henry, Fredrik Ljungberg, Ashley Cole—we began to recognize our Arsenal communion. His eyes at once transformed from the resigned malaise often accompanying life-on-the-post to the joyous vision of potential life, life perhaps within sight. Soccer had intervened—and right on time, Mr. Camus.
Over the next few hours, during that first night, I remember walking the rounds of our shift while talking soccer in lengthy paragraphs. I cannot remember feeling the cold or the wind. Where had they gone? Apparently it was enough warmth to be in the company of a passionate acolyte and to debate life’s pressing questions: Who is the best striker in the world? Don’t you absolutely hate Chelsea? The trailer and its artificially-produced heat (and any other earthly concession) had become entirely unnecessary. The presence of soccer had brought its own elements, and they were merciful and gracious.
This latent presence of soccer has since become clearer to me in the bright lights, and even brighter hopes, of a very sacred commencement: the curtain-raising game of the World Cup Finals. As Germany kicked off the 2006 tournament against Costa Rica, my mind flashed back to the opener for the 2002 World Cup, jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea.
That game featured the 1998 World Cup champions, France, against an African nation making its World Cup Finals debut, Senegal. Senegal won the match 1-0 and destined France’s disgraceful tournament. France bowed out having scored no goals in three games. But I digress.
The live telecasts of the 2002 World Cup in the Pacific Time Zone (where I lived at the time) arrived at ungodly hours, like two and four o’clock in the morning. The opener between France and Senegal, for instance, kicked off around 4:30 a.m. Nonetheless I had invited some friends over for a Kickoff Party realistically thinking a couple of stalwarts might show around six o’clock or so. Much to my surprise, eight male zombies inhabited my house at 4:30ish, eager to receive. The 24-hour Dunkin Donuts was only a few streets away, and the coffee maker had its game-face on and performed magnificently.
The Passion of soccer seems to announce: all else must be left behind, must inevitably die...
There we sat, barely awake, a ragamuffin band of 20-something Americans uniting with other disparate believers from vastly different worlds, dipping our donuts in our coffee together, staring into the blue light of that priestly medium as it proclaimed of bodies and blood—all in the name of “the beautiful game.”
About a year ago a Nike television commercial suggested this conspicuous presence surrounding soccer. The commercial colorfully showcased the game as it is played in all manner of the world’s far and distant places. As you watched the ball being kicked and headed around—especially on basketball courts and baseball fields, the hallowed grounds of other sports—though it is (at the end of the day) a television commercial, a marketing agency’s creation, you could not help but think of the real-world transcendence this game continues to evoke. If the commercial captured it, albeit in a brief minute’s time, the Passion of soccer seems to announce: all else must be left behind, and in fact all else must inevitably die, to resurrect mercifully and graciously the elements of this game.
Is this the way of soccer? Is this what I was baptized into by receiving a gift years ago?
With Ghana making its debutant appearance in the 2006 World Cup Finals, John, my old Ghanian friend at the post, wherever he is now, is probably looking around to share his delight and apprehension with a fellow-traveler. How I hope that someone somewhere will wander along his road, seeking warmth, desperate to engage the elements and to join the communion. It’s about time.