My only experience with soccer was at a Fourth of July festival in Ft. Dix, summer of 1977. I won a stop sign pillow after kicking a ball — probably incorrectly, with the top of my big toe — past a lumbering, middle-aged goalkeeper from about 10 feet away. I was almost 13, a year younger than my son is now.
My sport of choice had always been basketball, because of my father, a championship-winning coach. I played forward with the ferociousness of a pit bull and the rebounding finesse of Chicago Bull’s Dennis Rodman. I actually led my team in steals. Those were the days.
My soccer-obsessed son James introduced me to soccer at a fairly late age for kids nowadays, eight years old. We started with rec, then got serious with Select for three of his middle school years, and now we’ve moved up to Premier after a drama-filled, life-and-death tryouts week back in May.
I always found watching professional soccer a bit pointless, a bunch of players kicking the ball around, never getting near the goal, someone always rolling around on the ground, screaming in agony, waiting for that precious yellow card from the ref, only to pop up bright and bushy-tailed again, like nothing happened. And, PKs? What’s that about? Just play the game.
You never have NBA players deciding on a tie-breaker by going around shooting free throws. (Although relying on the three-point system seems a tad lazy by my standards.)
Eventually, with my son’s coaching (translation: reading me the riot act in front of other soccer parents), I learned to behave properly. I don’t yell at the refs for mistakenly calling offsides, or the other players for getting a little rough nearly as much. I’ve reduced the verbal confrontations with parents from the opposing teams by at least half. And I even understand, appreciate the rules of the game better so I could obsess over the 2016 Copa América and UEFA Euro championships like a real fan should.
Any soccer mom worth her weight in Gatorade should watch these matches faithfully, maybe even take notes to her child’s next summer soccer tourney. Youth soccer players aren’t the only ones committing these annoying, confounding mistakes on the pitch.
The pros do it too!
Argentina’s only hope of a Copa America championship went over the net during the deciding PK round against a tough Chile team last Sunday. After threading a free kick through a foot-wide square at the top-right corner of U.S. keeper Brad Guzan in the semis, Argentina’s soccer superstar Lionel Messi — considered the best in the world — sent his PK sailing high over Chile’s keeper Claudio Bravo and the crossbar, costing Argentina another close win, its second in two years.
For the ridiculously talented forward, four time’s not the charm. He had already watched Argentina lose before in the finals of championships, four times, three times in a row.
Right after Chile beat Argentina in the Copa America in the 4-2 shootout, the five-time FIFA Player of the Year announced he was done losing. “The national team is over for me,” he said in an interview with Argentine network TyC Sports. “It’s been four finals, it’s not meant for me. I tried. It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it, so I think it’s over.”
My son is a mini-Messi, except for the quitting thing. He’s turned free kicks into PKs, curving the ball over everyone’s heads before unexpectedly dropping in the net at the last second. This little trick came in handy at a Kent Tournament last summer, landing his Select Strikers in the finals. He also pulled the same trick earlier in June in the second to the last game of the Skagit Firecracker Tournament, scoring the only goal for his new Premier Rush team.
Yet, he’s also shanked his fair share of opportunities, often directly in front of the net with nobody there. They all do. I watched the pros do it way too many times.
I also witnessed the pros wasting precious shooting opportunities by messing around with the ball in the goal box instead of crossing, hanging back instead of pressing (USA did this the entire semis against Argentina), missing easy passes, overshooting passes, showboating, ball hogging, the whole nine yards.
When soccer parents freak out because their precious darlings are getting manhandled on the pitch, I just laugh now. Manhandling is commonplace in pro soccer. Oftentimes, the refs look the other way. That elbow to the face, a knee to the groin (classic Chile vs. Argentina), blatant shoving? Happens all the time. Happened at both Copa America and UEFA Euro. It’s happening now between Poland and Portugal in Euro’s quarter-finals, as I write this.
Every so often, the underdog wins by sheer force of will and hustle, rewarding patient soccer fans who often must sit through an hour and a half of nothing.
England should’ve made short work of the relatively new Iceland team Monday in the UEFA Euro Round of 16. Instead, David beat Goliath, as the Iceland players showed grit, tenacity, and unified skill. Some say England’s terrified players felt the enormous weight of making it this far, and simply choked.
Been there, done that at countless youth rec friendlies and fall season matches. How many times have soccer parents yelled, “Who wants it more? You’re not even trying!” Only these were grown, over-paid men representing England, getting soundly spanked by an unknown, definitely hungry team from Iceland of all places.
Now, when I go to root for my son’s team at the next match, I know better than to expect perfection. I know it’s not easy to move that black and white ball around with 22 players on the pitch, never mind directing it into the net at the right time with the right velocity and the right frame of mind in an actual set piece rather than an easy penalty or a corner hand-out.
It’s the equivalent of threading the eye of a needle in a hurricane, and it’s not easy.
Messi missed an easy PK. Initially, I couldn’t believe it either. Then, I remembered what my son told me after I kept going on about him shanking the ball at every opportunity.
“Mom, you’re running on adrenaline. Sometimes that adrenaline carries you to a goal, sometimes, it makes you miss. Soccer is 90 percent mental.”
I still think soccer can be boring. Did you see Germany and Poland’s June 16 Euro snoozefest?
This is the only sport where you often win by not winning. Portugal just advanced to the finals without scoring one goal in the draw against Poland — for 90 minutes — resorting to a PK shootout to get the job done.
But, if I pretend my son is out there, perhaps as the Italy’s fiery midfielder Emanuele Giaccherini…
(This is the first of two essays I submitted for publication in a new sports blog. The essays were rejected. But I thought you might enjoy them on my WordPress.)