Allez, les Vieux!

For most international soccer players, age 30 usually marks the beginning of the twilight years. Harbingers of things-not-so-pleasant-to-come are everywhere–the lost step, the extra breaths to full recovery, the stiffness in the lower back upon rising, sweat which forms thick like morning dew on foreheads marked by nascent, faint furrows.

Yet World Cup 2006 has seen its share of such long-in-the-tooth “oldsters” who have created space and opportunity around the hard challenges of men 10 years their junior: Zidane, Figo, Del Piero, Reyna, McBride, Barthez and Keller, to name just a few. They’ve all seen better years, but they still have the heart and courage to lay what’s left on the line for squad and country and have shown that if thirty is not the beginning, it surely is not the end either.

For me, the dawn of my 4th decade was the beginning of my soccer “career.” I was 3 months shy of my 32nd birthday the day that Eyegal came home and announced that she had signed up Number One Son (then 4 years old) for our recreational soccer league.

My reaction: “You did what?”

You see, I was still at that point a member of the unwashed masses, a certifiable futbol imbecile, unaware and unappreciative of the pitch-full of dreams that awaited me in the years to come. The first year was spent videotaping Number One as he settled deep into the defensive third, picked his nose and became hopelessly entangled in the net. Goaaaaal! For the other team, that is.

But things got better, and Number One began to play with purpose, followed by Two and Three, all fine players and assets to their teams. After a while, I started kicking around myself, then assisting more knowledgeable coaches, and finally taking on some teams of my own.

I found I had a knack for coaching younger players, and soon I enrolled in some coaching courses and eventually obtained a United States Soccer Federation (USSF) National “D” License (the highest is an “A” typically held by college and national team coaches). I coached several U10 rec and rec-plus teams to some semifinals and finals and once even won a tournament championship. I eventually coached at the club level, assisting with U11 and U12 competitive travel squads.

I say all this, because I never in my wildest dreams saw myself as a coach in any sport, much less one that I didn’t grow up playing. But I fell head-over-boots in love with my fickle, but alluring mistress. During the decade of my 30s, I spent many blissful hours on the pitch, scrimmaging with “the lads,” teaching tactics, technique and love of “The Beautiful Game.”

Until my early 40s, I was still participating in all-comer pickup games featuring players of all ages, including high school and college players and even some ex-professionals. I loved those games–no uniforms, no over-organization, just kids of all ages picking sides, with the older ones taking a little off their game to make it safe for the younger ones, who in turn were challenged to turn it up a notch to keep up with the big boys. The matches were, in the vernacular of soccer, “friendlies,” but that misleading moniker often belied the intensity and desire on display during those Saturday morning skirmishes.

At first, childhood nightmares resurfaced. I found myself sweating bullets as the impromptu draft left me and a couple of 10-year-olds as the last ones to be chosen. Would it happen again? Not quite, but almost. But after several matches, I garnered a small, but significant reputation for tough tackles, good vision and pinpoint passing and moved steadily forward in the selection queue.

My greatest moment on the pitch came one day when a 200 lb, 6’4″ All State centerback decided to leave the defensive third and rush forward pell mell toward my defensive midfielder position (I typically gravitated toward this spot since it involved a little less running). By the cocky and disdainful look on his young mug, I could tell that he regarded my trivial presence as an insignificant impediment to the rocket which he intended to launch with no small amount of authority into the left-upper 90.

I don’t think he ever saw me coming (you see, I know a thing or two about blind spots and how everyone has one). I executed a deft block tackle and stripped him of possession and quickly looked upfield–wide open spaces for as far as the eye could see. With the outside backs following the lead of their captain, there was no wall of defense to stem the deadly counter which ensued.

We had the numbers in our favor, and I charged forward as fast as my aging legs could carry me, my wings beginning their own lethal runs down the flanks. I launched my service toward the left into empty space and directly into the path of the galloping left middie. The goalie’s charge off his line was too little too late.

So, what did my little foray into the offensive third cost me? Two ibuprofen plus a few sore muscles and bruises the next morning.

The stunned and disbelieving look on the young All-Stater’s face and the relentless razzing he received from his teammates? Priceless.

After back surgery on a herniated disc at L5-S1 in late 2003, my playing days essentially ended–one hard fall could easily send me back to the operating table, something that I hope to avoid ever going through again. I occasionally help out with local soccer camps, but my boys have other, more capable coaches now (although I have been known to offer a few pieces of unsolicted advice now and then).

I miss her, though. The way we danced and carried on like that, the poetry-in-motion, the chaos followed by the synchrony of all the parts fitting together at just the right moment, the sound of leather-on-leather, the rip of nylon–the rush.

As I watch Zidane play his final international matches, I notice the wry, knowing smile forming at the corners of his crinkled mouth. Ronaldo of Brazil (no spring chicken at age 29) has it too, and they shared one together as they playfully eyed each other across the center circle prior to their quarterfinal match. “Zizou” seems to soak it all in, creating reels of memories for later review, his legacy enlarging with each immaculate touch and every sublime flick of the ball.

Allez, les Vieuz–“Go, you old boys!”

Yes, Zizou, go indeed. And please, while you’re at it, take me along too.

  1. hermit Jeremy

    oui, oui… allez, les vieux. though come game time i may very well go with the country i was born in… i am torn. in my childhood italy was the best! but they also love flopping. i hate divers, except those that do it in bodies of water.

    and, it’d be nice to see a solid technicle team win… oh wait, that would’ve been the case had germany gone all the way. not to take away anything from the french.

    it’d be nice, though, to see the old folks pull it together and the shakiest looking team, at the start, come out the strongest.

    however, as you say, if it is buffon against barthez, it will be buffon hands down

  2. Mike the Eyeguy

    Italia too? And Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic as well–an impressive internationale resume.

    I’m wondering if most Americans will be pulling for Italy (probably). Longstanding anti-French sentiment stateside plus, if the Azzurri win, then we can say that we tied the WC champs. Small consolation to be sure, but better than nothing and probably good for Arena too.

    One for the ages I hope. And please, no PKs!

  3. hermit Jeremy

    yes, i am, to misquote jimmy buffet, the son of the son of a missionary. and, though the eurythmics wouldn’t want you to believe my father nor my grandfather should they tell you this tale, you can believe me, for i, inlike them, am not a missionary man. not that i don’t have many friends who are, and not that i don’t sympathize with them.

    yes, may it be one for the ages.

  4. Mike the Eyeguy

    Ah, I figured there was a missionary bloodline there somewhere.

    You’re blessed to have traveled far and seen much. I have not been so widely traveled PK (Post-kids), but if God grants me the years, I hope to remedy that eventually.

  5. hermit Jeremy

    i should’ve said, that was a well written and very interesting story of the glory of sports… since i’m in a pop citing mood…

    peter cetera’s the glory of love could be playing in the background…

    i would’ve said the boss’s glory days, but since you didn’t grow up playing soccer, it wouldn’t be a reliving of HS soccer matches.

    btw, your story is nothing close to the velveeta of peter cetera’s song

  6. Mike the Eyeguy

    Thanks. But don’t underestimate my ablility to start talking about the “Glory Days” and those hotly contested cross country races and tennis matches “back in the day.”

    The Boss had nothing on me. Speedball my foot.

  7. Seattle soccer mom

    Your story is mine, opposite gender. I fell in love with the game when my son started to play, and started myself at on a women’s indoor team at forty, a couple of years back. I figure I have maybe a couple of years of this joy left. For me it’s the feet and knees that are going, alas. (I recently woke up on a Wednesday morning, thinking, “Day to take out the garbage,” and wondered why this thought was associated with pain. Oh, right, Tuesday is soccer night.) I do more damage with every game, but I figure I’d rather live the years with pain and memories than none of either.

    I still consider Zidane the greatest ever. Even with that Coup de Boule thing. 🙂 Allez les Vieux!

  8. Mike the Eyeguy

    Seattle soccer mom:

    Hey there, thanks for stopping by and sharing your story And what a great one it is! I just returned from coaching a U19 team this evening and I know I’m going to be feeling it tomorrow, but like you, I know it will have been worth it.

    Just pop a couple of ibuprofen and “play on” girl! 🙂

  9. Seattle soccer mom

    Ah, yes. Ibuprofen is my friend.

    I actually discovered your essay while looking for a source for “Allez Les Vieux” T-shirts. Since I’m a huge fan of Les Bleus, particularly the old guys, and no spring chicken myself, the saying makes me laugh.

    I notice that you wrote this piece after Zidane’s amazing Brazil game (which I was too nervous to enjoy at the time), but before his fall from grace in the final. Curious what you think of him now? Angel? Demon? Fallen patron saint of the aging athlete?


  10. Mike the Eyeguy

    Oh good, it looks like you found my World Cup posts. I’ll go over there and respond.

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