Watching 16-year-old boys play soccer at a very high level is not for the faint of heart. They are insanely quick, closing down the available space in the blink of an eye; if you find yourself thinking about your next decision of what to do with the ball, it’s already too late. And the physical contact? Brace yourself, because it hurts just watching. They are young kamikazes in colorful kits who have no regard for their own bodies or the bodies of their opponents. They are young rams testing their mettle in head-to-head combat, guarding their turf as if it were a matter of life or death.
Number Two Son and Number Eight on the opposing squad went at it all afternoon. I focused on their contest within a contest and witnessed a titantic tussle: So-called legal “shoulder charges” which were really a little more than that, frequent tugs of the jersey and elbows to the ribcage, subtle and cleverly disguised, and acrobatic, aerial dogfights fought over the control of a lofted ball. Just as wince-inducing were the sounds of mortal combat, the collision of leather, plastic and bone whose report echoed throughout the battlefield. The center ref was of the mind to let them play, and they took the leash in their steely jaws and stretched it to the breaking point.
But I saw something else too. Whenever the action shifted away from them, the two stood close together and chatted pleasantly, seemingly pleased with each other’s company as their strong athletic bodies glistened like young gods under a blazing, early fall sun. But when the ball was switched back to their side, it was back to business: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”
At the end of the match, the two of them shook hands, did the man-hug thing and amicably parted ways. Later, I asked Number Two what they had been discussing in those brief moments of truce. “Oh, you know, this and that–movies, music, how French people talk, that sort of thing.”
I noted how odd it seemed, the two of them locked in Darwinian struggle one moment and acting like brothers in the next.
“That happens all the time out there, Dad,” he replied. “It’s nothing personal. That’s the way soccer should be.”