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.


Tara said...

I was wondering how many countries you would make it through before being arrested.

Edie and the gang said...

Oh my gosh. Something I didn't think about. I don't know if any of Luke's previous attorneys can practice law in Europe or Africa. So glad Peter Pan got caught and you all got the cash back! The digital age has arrived, just like a CSI show.
Love and hugs,
Vamanos Espana!

mary said...

Not a good idea to be put in jail in Germany. From the story I thought Ruud would arrive and get you into the game. I guess you all know now the the relatives in Spain are esctatic. So now do you pull for Russia with the Dutch coach or Spain.
Sounds like this leg is easier than South America

courtney said...

Miss you, miss you, miss you! I hope you're finding some vegetables to eat. So of course, France breaks my kids hearts, again. But they watched on. I myself even caught the juciest parts of Turkey/Croatia.

Peter Pan, bad for you, good for film. Did they let you shoot inside? Any fruitcake exchange hands?

Take good care of eachother.


emma k said...

Viva Espana!!! Miss you all xx

bill said...

I'm a friend of Bobby Somerville and Mike Rottjakob and I remember the Ruud experience. Your project is an inspiration to us all...even a 50 year old former HFC coach like myself...Bill Pomeroy

Vishal Singh said...

I greatly appreciate your initiative as i'm also one of the people who aspire to become a footballer , are good at it too but are deprived of their dream due to lack of awareness in the society , infrastructure & mostly importantly the scope of a career in the game in their country!! ... I'm passionate enough for the game that i understand all the difficulty that you're facing !! .. But i just want to say that we should keep moving forward & try even harder after each failure until we get what we want & i'm so gonna do it !!