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.