Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Playing Soccer in Brasil

I can now honestly say I have left a piece of myself in this country. It's on the floor in the left-hand corner over by the far goal.

Tonight was my last night in Brasil following EIRPG and the followup book signing in Rio. My host, the estimable co-founder of Devir and all-around gent, suggested that I might enjoy playing in his pickup indoor soccer game, a Wednesay night fixture. I said yes.

Now, the last time I played soccer regularly was in middle school. I was in training for the Elkins Park Middle School team after spending a year on the JV, but broke my foot playing tackle football with Larry Garcia and couldn't play that fall. That was it for my soccer career; I'd mostly played fullback because I couldn't outrun a constipated porcupine but had a definite knack for booting the ball downfield on those rare occasions when I made contact.

Best guess is that it must have been fifteen years since the last time I actually played soccer for more than three minutes at a shot. There was some intramural stuff at Wesleyan, and a few pickup games, and...well, that was a lot of scotch and road trips ago. These days I look like Moomintroll on my good days and Barbapappa on my bad ones, and I'm about as ready to take the field as John Kruk.

So what the hell am I doing stepping onto the (indoor) pitch with Brasilians. You know, the most soccer-crazy people on the planet? When I walked down Ipanema beach, I did not see scads of scantily clad bikini babes. I saw dozens of circles of guys all playing hacky sack with soccer balls.

Indoor soccer, incidentally, is a whole different animal. It's five on five, in a room about the size of an immature high school gym. The place we played was the Paulista FC, which sensibly had a snack bar where you could get beer and caipirinhas after the game. There was a balcony overlooking the play space, guarded by a net, where kids were kicking a ball back and worth while we played. Once the ball squirted out of the net and landed on the field, and hilarity ensued.

The game was a family and friends affair. Cousins, brothers in law, you get the idea - these guys have been playing together for ages and love doing it. They were very welcoming to the new guy, even if I'd completely lost my instinct for positioning, and very supportive on those rare occasions when I did something right. General consensus was that for a fat old American who hadn't played in forever, I did all right. For the record, though, my left foot is completely gone. As in my one left-footed shot on goal looked like a Tim Wakefield fastball.

The players ranged from early twenties to sixty or so. People swapped in and out when they felt like it. The game moved fast, but not at breakneck pace - at least, not often. Douglas, my host, turned out to be an astonishingly good keeper, making several Tony Meola-level saves while wearing a shirt that could only be described as "unusual." As the evening wore on, I got a bit of my sense of things back - OK, this guy is going to go curl in front of the net, mark that guy because he's going to head for the corner, try to control the ball without catching it in the face - and some of the instincts woke up. One guy jokingly dedicated a goal to me; I think they were amused when I made a play. Mind you, most of my plays were on defense. I'm much better at crashing into someone and separating them forcibly from the ball than any other aspect of the game, including "running", "kicking", "inbounds" or "falling over clutching my knee in pretend agony in hopes of drawing a yellow card for my opponent".

Afterwards, I got a few questions. Had I played before? Did I like it? (They thought I was lying when I said yes). Would I sign a contract (hastily scribbled on a napkin - they'll be paying me in beer. I signed.) And then farewells and out into the night, even as my calves started reminding me that I'm going to be on airplanes for sixteen hours tomorrow.

But still. I played soccer in Brasil.
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