A fellow dip husband and I had an invitation to play soccer on Sunday afternoon. Just the chance to kick the ball around. No keeping score. Certainly no full field or goalies.
It has been about five years since I last kicked the ball on the National Mall. At that time I was trying to balance my biking habit with something different - soccer. I suppose a more productive use of time would have been to read more books, create something, or brush up on a language. Nah...soccer. Well, each week I would limp home with sore knees and ankles. The high school soccer muscles had fully transformed into their current cycling muscles under a slight layer of 30-something body fat. That little experiment lasted probably six weeks.
This weekend, David and I met our Ghanaian contact Tirol (???) at nearby grocery store. During the phone conversation that lead up to the arrangements, Tirol used the words "friendly", "coach" that made David and I kinda wonder just what we were getting into. Certainly this was just a pick-up game. Maybe a practice at best. A short cab ride to the Kotobabi soccer pitch exposed the truth a bit more. As Tirol explained, he was sitting out this game recovering from malaria. The other team, he begain to explain... Wait a second. We wanted to assure Tirol that we were just two guys approximately twice his age looking to kick a ball, that had infact not kicked a ball in recent memory. I was trying to avoid embarassing myself by recalling one of the more basic rules. We hadn't even arrived, but realized we were in waaaay over our head.
We paid the taxi driver his fare at the edge of the lot, and sure enough at the soccer pitch there was a small crowd sitting in the shade watching the current game. I kind of whispered to David that the crowd would only certainly grow if the two of us attempted to play. I think he agreed, that although it might be quite amusing to watch to older guys trip over there own feet, that the game deserved more. We took a seat under the tree and watched.
The Kotobabi pitch is just a red clay dirt open space with a slight downward slop to the north goal. Chalked touch lines had long since been worn away by the previously played matches. There is no grass to be seen - just the gritty red clay. What could possibly grow in this heat and under the enless games afterall. There are no bleachers. No scoreboard. No soccer-moms with coolers and collaspable chairs.
Without any grass to slow down the ball, the ball movement is very fast to the point of seeming out-of-control at times. Bounces are big. Simply keeping the ball in bounds and under control seems difficult enough. The field surface does not provide much traction for making quick stops, starts or changes in direction. The gound is too hard for cleats to dig in, but too slippery for shoes to grip. Attackers kick up dust, then plant a foot and slide before booting the ball on goal. The goalie attempting to stop the shot, moves his feet until eventually gaining traction. My joints just ache watching the players twist, slide and bump chasing the ball. The local Dynamic All-Stars control the ball from the whistle, and pelt the opposing goal with shot after shot.
Tirol explains that this field is the home field of one of the current Ghanaian National Team - The Black Stars (Michael Essien?) that surprised so many major world soccer giants in the 2006 World Cup. Certainly the recent soccer accomplishments by the Black Stars must inspire the local players the way Michael Jordan or Lance Armstrong does in the US. There is definitely an enormous amount of athletic talent and determination displayed on the field this day - probably every day. Every player has the basics skills and a enough flair to be a standout on any team I've played on.
We'll be back someday.