Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Legend of Ruud van Nistelrooy, The Curse of the Americans, and The Cake Side of Life

Four years ago, Ruud van Nistelrooy--international Dutch superstar--took a vacation along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. The weather was bad--dark sky, poor visibility, unappealing road trip conditions. So when he saw a sign for Holiday Inn Drive, he pulled off the highway and opted to wait out the weather.

While hauling his bag out the car, he noticed a small white placard: ASHEVILLE INDOOR SOCCER CENTER.

The Asheville Indoor Soccer Center is a massively confusing place to find--you must drive down Holiday Inn drive through the hotel parking lot until you reach a winding, poorly-lit road that takes you to a vinyl-sided warehouse one could think was abandoned were it not for the small, easily-missable sign with an arrow allegedly pointing toward an indoor soccer field. If you are Bobby Somerville, indoor center manager, there is no chance an international superstar is going to arrive in your foyer.

When the tall brown-haired man with a strong nose walked into the indoor center and explained that he was on holiday and had been driving for a long time and wanted to bang the ball around a bit to stretch out his legs, Bobby Somerville was getting ready to go home. Because Bobby is a softie, and not because he thought he might be talking to Ruud van Nistelrooy, he agreed to keep the field open for another half hour.

Ruud's first strike banged off the ceiling lights. Irritated, Bobby stood up from his desk and raised his arms. Ruud smiled sheepishly and gave him an apologetic wave.

Five minutes later, Mike Rottjakob, the Asheville soccer coaching director, walked in and said, '' Who are those guys?''

''Hell if I know,'' Bobby said.

Mike walked out of the office and back to the field, watching for several minutes before returning to Bobby's desk. ''I think that's Ruud van Nistelrooy.''

Together, they leaned over the walls of the indoor field and tried to decide if it was possible that one of the top goal-scorers in the world could be playing right there in front of them, in Asheville, North Carolina.

''Ruud?'' they called.

''Ruud van Nistelrooy?'

He never answered them directly--just smiled and continued to hit perfect volleys from goal to goal.

''He was very coy,'' Bobby would tell me, as I made him repeat the story again as I filed team registrations at my part-time job at the indoor center. ''He'd smack a volley, saying in jest, 'Who could hit a volley like that? Ruud!'''

Within twenty minutes, Mike and Bobby called every soccer fan they knew and Ruud van Nistelrooy was playing in a pick-up game with anyone who wanted to play.

Because of this story, and my subsequent fondness for Ruud van Nistelrooy, when Ryan, Luke, Ferg and I are putting $10 on a team in the EURO 2008, I choose the Dutch.

Ferg bets on the Germans--a solid, safe pick, Luke opts for the French, which he blames on the boys of Marseille, who effectively convinced him of their greatness even though they'd be missing Zidane, and Ryan went with the Italians.

I don’t hold Ryan’s pick against him. Primarily a tennis player, I figure he must not know the Italians are the team you love to hate...performative dives and pouty faces nothing you would ever knowingly choose to support. I haven’t forgiven them for the dramatics that brought on the questionable penalty kick robbing the Aussies in the semi-final, nor the questionable penalty kick against the United States in group play, nor the way Materazzi insulted Zizou's mother and then crumbled to the ground. Some countries teach the dive as a component of the game…and some countries don’t.

Of course, once we are inside a roomful of Italians, I keep this perspective to myself.

As the Italians were kicking off against the Dutch, we were arriving an Arezzo, where we were spending the night at an art school...an art school without a working television. We drop off our bags, hop into our rental car, and begin to scour the streets for a television, which is usually quite easy to find when the national team is playing. But the Arezzo downtown is not accessible by car. It's a twenty-minute walk we don't have time for. We know of one bar on the outskirts of town but when we arrive, it's closed, garage door all the way down.

But we can hear sound coming from the other side of the door.

Rebekah and Luke bang on the door and someone from the inside raises it halfway up while we state our case.

A second later, we are surrounded by Italian men who have shut down the bar in order to fully focus on the game. It is a very loud room, but not a happy, loud room because the Italians are already down 2-0.

With a two goal lead, I am able to keep my game reactions fairly neutral. It is not until Holland scores their third goal that Rebekah, Luke, and I give ourselves away with a small hoot of happiness. The four men to our left slowly turn their eyes on us, a new awareness in their faces: they have let traitors into the room. They have given their beer and their food to traitors.

The Americans are deemed a curse. We know this because a large man in the back row rises from his seat and makes several trips to the bathroom, cupping water in his hands and flicking it at us, trying to free us of our demons. We smile apologetically, pat them on their shoulders, yell Grazie, and head home.

Three days later, we're on our way to Innsbruck, Austria to see EURO 2008 up close. It's the Spaniards against the Swedes and we harbor a fledgling size hope of getting tickets.
As hordes of colorfully dressed fans pass us by, we hold a small sign: We need tickets. This prompts lots of pats on the shoulder, ''Ha, don't we all.'' One smug couple walks by and asks us how much we'd be willing to pay for a ticket. We say, "150 euros?'' and they laugh in our faces.

So when a round Spaniard in a Peter Pan hat tells us he's got two tickets in Category 1 but that he wants to sit with his friends--and that he'll sell them to us for 150 euros a piece--we can't believe our luck. It is still a load of money, but it's about face value and we think, how many chances do you have to go see a EURO game?

I pat Peter Pan's arm in enthusiastic thanks and let out a small, happy squeal.

We find some leftover yellow face paint laying on the street and spread it across our cheekbones. We haven't decided whether which team we want to win, but yellow is a crossover color that can be read as support for either side. Groups of fans parade in front of the camera, making faces, singing songs, shouting game predictions.

A half an hour before game time we make our way through the stadium gates. We are laughing, giddily excited, aflush with success, when the woman examining our tickets says, "Just a minute,'' and begins to talk into her walkie-talkie. She points at some very small print. She laughs and says something in rapid German to the other ticket attendant, then turning toward us. ''It should say 'Coke Side of Life.' This says 'Cake Side of Life.' These are quite fake.''

We look toward each other in embarrassed, disappointed horror. We are thinking of our euros and the game that will happen without us...when we see a fleet of German police officers coming our way...and it occurs to us that scalping tickets isn't entirely legal. We're not sure which part of the process is against the law--the buying or the selling--but when we ask if we are in trouble, the German officer, says, ''Oh yes,'' seemingly surprised we didn't know that immediately.

We are led through the stadium into a small police station, where we hold our yellow-painted faces in our hands, listening to the sounds of game above us and imagining what it would've been like to see Fernando Torres make a run up the wing...and what we would do if we came across Peter Pan.

The police speak in fast German and apparently decide we are not in trouble. We tell them we have the guy on tape and their undercover cops snap photos of our LCD screen. They escort us to another police station and as we exit through the restricted section of the stadium, we see a field covered with dozens of guys and girls in fluorescent uniform playing in a pick up game, fifty or so ambulances lined up behind them. It's the red cross against the paramedics and our escorting cop allows us to stop and watch for a minute or so before we are whisked off to the other station. Until their walkie-talkies summon them out to rescue an injured player or a drunken fan, they sprint across the field in their heavy black boots, just as taken with the EURO football fever as everyone else.

Two hours later, the Spain/Sweden game is over and we are still in the station. Not only have we not gotten to see the game live, we have not gotten to see the game at all. As our policeman drives us back to the center of the city, we call out the car window to the passing fans: Who won? When a group of Swedes tell us to fuck off, we have a good idea of the outcome.

Later, we receive a magic phone call: able to identify the green hat on one of the cams set up all over the city, they nabbed Peter Pan. While we never got to see the game we railed for hours to see, at least we got our money back, and at least they got Peter Pan.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Priests on mopeds, heels on cobblestone...and other paradoxes

We want to play in the Vatican. We have the slightly illogical rationale that if we can get inside a Bolivian prison, we should be able to get inside a church.

This desire sprang from the discovery of something called the Clericus Cup—where priests-in-training from all over the world play each other on a field overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica. For weeks now, Luke has been reading up on these player-priests: even Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone—the Vatican’s Secretary of State—is a calcio devotee who recently bought a Serie C team and hopes one day to have a professional team representing the Vatican.

Though Luke sent a barrage of emails to everyone from the info desk to the Pope himself, we’ve arrived in Rome and no one has responded. But knowing that somewhere within the walled city, the clergymen play pick-up games raises a whole host of questions in our minds: do they play peacefully, or do they exalt in their one opportunity to let loose? Are there dirty tackles, cheap shots? How competitive do these guys get?

So—hoping we’ll have more luck in person than via the Internet—we head out in Rome, walking past women with high heels wedged in cobblestones and priests who fly by on mopeds, robes billowing in the wind. We wander into and around the Vatican carrying a soccer ball, asking any particularly sprightly-looking priest, “Excuse me Father, do you play?” We also talk to policemen, Swiss Guards, and official looking men in suits and earpieces; while one suit rainbows the ball and one priest dribbles the ball with his hand as though it is a basketball, telling us how much he loves football, everyone is pretty clear about the fact that we’ve got no chance of getting in. One Swiss Guard tells us with a small smile, “It is quite impossible.”

We are redirected to the seminary schools, where we are told, “Oh yes, they play all the time, all the time.” Once we find a seminarian to escort us to the field, we arrive at a large dirt area with several accompanying bulldozers. The old grass field is being replaced with turf. “This is Italy,” our seminarian tells us. “It will take a long, long time.”

The next day we give the Vatican one more try, this time carrying an “official” letter—composed at an Internet CafĂ© an hour earlier—requesting permission to play with the Swiss Guard. We walk up to very friendly men in puffy blue pants who hand off our letter to a guard named Ruben who comes out of the tower and tells us that he does in fact play on the Swiss Guard soccer team. He takes our Italian cell phone number and tells us he will call us after he talks to the captain of the team.

We have no idea if he will really call and are surprised when our phone starts ringing and the Swiss Guard is on the other end. Ruben tells us the field they usually play on is in the seminary school—the same field we stood on earlier among the bulldozers.

We ask if by chance there might be other playable fields in Rome. He says oh sure, and tells us he will call us once they figure it out.

He never calls. We try his number several times and give it ten or so rings before we hang up and relinquish hopes of playing with anyone in or around the Vatican.

We take off for a road-trip through the Tuscan countryside. It is good to be outside the city and away from our failure—we zip past vineyards, red wildflowers, and endless hills until we reach a small town at the base of the Appanee Mountains.

In Italy, priests are not the only occupational group to form teams; there are national teams for most professions, from lawyers to singers to writers. We've come to Casola because the 2900 person town has two writers on the national writers team.

Claudio is a traveling jewelery salesman who's published an avant garde style novel, as well as some soccer articles in the Italian GQ. Cristiano is a well-known Italian writer who still works every night in his uncle's pizzeria--because no matter how famous he gets, he still sees himself as nothing more than a pizzaiolo. Both Cristiano and Claudio love to play--telling us about what the game meant to them when they were kids and what writing means to them now: a chance to say something, to mean something, a way to make your own small world where things make

(They also tell us that Holland wins the writer's tournament every year, adding, ''They've got a guy who played for Bundesliga...wrote one very small children's book.'')

Thursday, June 12, 2008


The taxi drops us off in the center of a large square in the Old Port. There are boys riding bikes through a fountain, fisherman with crossed legs drinking Pastis, and pigeons dive-bombing from window to window.

Our window is on the seventh floor and after we’ve hauled our bags and equipment up a skinny, winding staircase, we open the peeling shutters and lean outside, looking out at the masts of the sailboats—hundreds of them docked at what used to be France’s main port.

The people we are renting our apartment from invite us to a neighborhood party in a small fishing harbor carved into the side of a white cliff. There are row boats bumping up against each other and street lamps reflecting off the water. We eat goat cheese, tabouleh, and birthday cake as the neighborhood tells us about their city: “In Marseille, we have the music, the football, and the fish. And we have all the people of the world—you will see every culture walking down the street.”

By the end of the night, I have two pages of scribbled names—while it was very clear to me at the time which name referred to a large grass park and which named referred to a neighborhood with cheap ethnic food and which name referred to a beach, it’s all less clear as I’m looking at the scribbled notes the following morning.

There is one accompanying sketch—it looks a little like someone started a game of Hangman in my notebook, but when I show it to a taxi driver he reads it as a street map and drops us off at a large stretch of grass along the water.

We walk out along a rock jetty and get a shot of the bright Mediterranean water. There are guys fishing off the rocks and when we talk with them about football, a guy with slicked black hair and shiny sunglasses says, “Espere ici…” He wedges his fishing pole between the rocks and takes off, hopping from boulder to boulder until he disappears into the parking lot. When he comes back, he works at the bow tie of a plastic bag and unfolds a long-sleeve Olympique de Marseille jersey—Drogba written across the back. OM was Drogba’s first club and when interviewed, he still says things like, “This is for the people of Marseille.”

“It is real,” the fisherman says as he passes it to us. He holds it so fondly and carefully and we all wonder how long he has kept it with him in his car, so there’s never a chance he won’t have it when he needs it.

We walk back to the grass and join one of the five or six games happening across the grass. In South America, you don’t wear shoes if you are playing on grass or sand, but when Luke and I throw off our flip-flops and walk into the game barefoot, there is a sudden flock of men expressing concern over my toes. (No one seems to care about the welfare of Luke’s toes.)

Ten minutes after the game is over, there are six of us crammed into one small Fiat. Fares and Lamin—who we’ve just met—want us to hear the music of Marseille, so we are apparently on our way to a rap studio.

Luke is submerged beneath me, my head’s hitting the ceiling, and Ryan is trying to film without elbowing Ferg’s face. Lamin, a Gambian who has taught himself French in the one year he’s been here, is in the passenger seat. In the driver’s seat is Fares, who tells us as he weaves through cars, “I’m Algerian, like Zidane.”

We meet a group that plays with Soprano, the most famous rapper in France. “This city, our heart beats for football. When the football is good, the people are happy. Zizou is from here, Drogba played here, this is the center of French football.”

They freestyle a few songs for us—one of them juggling as he raps—and then they start a game of two-v-twos that ends after we dislodge two ceiling-panels.

That night, we have dinner with Fares’s family. Because we’ve played soccer with their son, they take us into their home and feed us a giant meal—fried dough filled with aged cheese, roasted chicken, homemade Algerian bread, and French pastries. “This is how we are in Marseille,” they say, shrugging off our thanks. “Everyone is welcome.”

Back at Le Pointu, the bar beneath our apartment, Ryan’s bag has arrived, only seven days late. Ryan has spent the last week wearing Ferg’s warm-up pants, Luke’s green t-shirt, and plaid whitie-tighties purchased at the French Quick-Mart. So it is a big moment to see his bag propped up against the bar.


We play one more game before we leave the city. We come across a group of sixteen and seventeen year olds lounging on a soccer court, taking turns attempting to chip the ball at the cross bar.

Some games have a life to them that others don’t and there’s no telling when you’re going to find it and when you’re not, but these teenagers have it—there’s a jazz to their game, a kind of intense exuberance, lots of joking, lots of sudden rage, lots of dancing, with and without the ball.

When the game ends, they take out a cell phone and use the ring tone to dance one at a time before the group. One kid has giant diamond earrings and a Gucci purse—he is ridiculously good at both football and dancing. The kid who speaks English tells me, “It’s a kind of African dancing—they are always inventing new stuff and bringing it back to Marseille.” As they move from dancing to freestyle rapping, he tells me, “Music and football are what matter here.”

Monday, June 2, 2008

Museum Football

When my sister graduated from high school, my father took her to Paris, but the only details that emerged from the trip involved him snoring so loud she slept in the hotel hallway. So my image of Paris was a faded runner rug and my sister, curled in a ball at the foot of the door.

Ferg, Luke, and I arrive in Paris at 8am. Ryan, who'd gone to Spain for a family wedding, would meet us later in the afternoon.

We take the train to the metro to the basement level apartment we are renting for two nights. It is close enough to the sights to be convenient, and far enough away to feel like we are seeing the Parisian's Paris. We drop off our bags, buy bread and cheese from the supermarche, and force ourselves onto the street, even though we are thinking, at home, it is 3:30 AM and I think I'd like to be in bed.

Several people have told us there are games in the Champ de Mars, the grass stretching out from the Eiffel Tower. Ferg herself had gotten into a game in the grass with a mix of tourists several years ago. We're hoping to stumble upon something similar but when we get there, the main lawn is closed for repairs. When Ferg attempts to talk to the maintenance men, they ask her out for coffee but know nothing about the football.

On the side lawn, the only game is a swarm of French seven-year-olds who look like they're on an Eiffel Tower field trip. While Luke and I love to play with anyone from old men to fat men to first-time females, we do not love to play with seven-year-olds. Something about sprinting past small children feels wrong. So Luke and I lean back against the bench and just watch. There's an occasional game-ruiner who snatches it up with his hands and makes a break for it, the other kids tailing him until someone is able to knock it from his fingers and back down to the feet.

There is one drunk man with a Polaroid camera who wants to juggle the ball and kiss my cheek, but we opt out of a game with him. The only people left are either dozing or fondling lovers beneath umbrellas. Luke rolls the ball out in the grass and waits to see if anyone will take the bait but when no one does, we call it a day. It is not our mission to force people to play with us.

The beauty of pick-up is that it happens anywhere, with anyone, at no given place or time. This is also what makes it hard to find. When you are planning your trip, you go off the things you hear and the places people tell you games happen, but when you arrive, there is no guarantee that the Mennonites still play in the Bolivian jungle or that the lawn of the Eiffel Tower won't be temporarily closed.

We walk six or seven miles home, soaking wet but warm, passing the Musee d'Orsay, the Champs Elysees, and the Louvre. We sit down at the Bataclan cafe on the corner across from the alleyway that leads to our apartment. The directions we gave Ryan are vague, and we are hoping to intercept him before he has the chance to get lost.

In South America, every bug, calamity, and illness found Ryan, so it's no surprise to us when
we see him walking towards us, three hours late and without a bag. We hold up our hands and he mumbles, "They canceled my flight and lost my bag." Bag contents included both eyeglasses and disposable contacts so our cameraman is now blind.

We regroup over dinner, heading to a restaurant Antoine, the man whose basement we are renting, recommended: "It is good, cheap, and you will like it." The restaurant has soft light, stone walls, and photographs of memorable tombstones. The tables are close together and the menu is written on a rotatable chalkboard. We order two entrees to split--beouf de bordeaux and some sort of very good fish. As we wait for the food, I pull out my notebook and attempt to write out sentences in French I think we'll need: Ou est le football? Nous faisons un documentaire sur le football de rue a travers le monde. Peuvons-nous jouer football avec toi?

When our waiter, Fabrice, comes over, he sits down with my notebook and re-conjugates my verbs, changes my articles, and adds accents. Before long, the whole restaurant begins to brainstorm on places we could go. The man to our right spends half his year in Chicago, and half his year in Paris. He tells us, "You are very lucky to have found this restaurant." Fabriez sighs and sits down, "But Paris is like a museum, you cannot play football inside a museum. I think you will need to go somewhere else."

The next afternoon we head back to the Eiffel Tower for one more try. The weather is better, the mood is lighter, and we know by now that what you find one day does not dictate what you will find the next.

The Champs de Mar has five or six squares of lawn and we decide to head further and further back, until we can see all of the Eiffel Tower in our camera lens. As Rebekah shoots a scenic and Luke and Ryan head to the bathroom, I scan the lawn for prospective players. I glance to my right and say, "Soccer."

It seems too good to be true so I jog closer to make sure it is real and not some kind of mirage. There, to my right, is a soccer court, the Eiffel Tower shooting up directly behind it.

The guys to the side of the court waiting to get on look like French school boys--shaggy hair, reading glasses, dark jeans, backpacks. One of them looks like a gruffer version of Leo DiCaprio. He speaks English and explains to us that you play until two goals, winner stays on.

We collectively roll up our jeans and play. The guys are as good as anyone we played with in South America, and this comes as something of a surprise. In all honesty, we didn't think the Europeans stood a chance.

My impression of the Eiffel Tower on our first day was rather underwhelming--swarming tourists, gray sky, and a giant metal structure around which no one played soccer--but today it is different: the sky is pink and the sun has fallen directly beneath the tower, giving the impression that it is lit from within. There are people all around, lounging in the grass, sitting on the steps, kicking soccer balls, walking hand in hand, living happily within the Paris museum.

On our way back to the apartment, a well-dressed French man mistakes us for Parisians and asks us for directions. Excited by the opportunity to say the one sentence I remember from French class, I say, "Je ne parle pas francais" and we continue walking. One hundred yards later he is still behind us, apparently heading the same direction we are. When he asks where are you from and why you are here, we tell him about our football documentary. He takes the ball from Luke's hand and says, "Ah? You watch this."

In his gray sweater vest, knit pants, and black shiny shoes, he starts juggling in the shadows of the cobblestone street.