Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Crip-walking in Shanghai

AK is a twenty-eight-year-old Chinese man who gave up a highly paid, highly respected job as a banker so that he could have more time to work on his football tricks. I want to say that while I watch him juggle the ball on his shins, it’s hard for me to imagine him wearing a business suit and sitting at a desk, but that’s not true—I can easily imagine him wearing a suit and sitting at a desk. Maybe he could see it too—like us, he’s at that age where things start funneling in directions you’re not even sure you want to go—and maybe that’s part of what led him to tell a disbelieving father that his grown up son wanted to become a street soccer player.

Several years ago, AK saw a youtube video of various street players. He enjoyed watching them so much that he started trying tricks himself. Everyday he spent hours mastering the moves he saw on the computer screen and then inventing his own, until he became arguably the best streetballer in China. Nowadays he has a small following of guys who meet him in public squares and attempt to replicate his tricks. They play outside the metro station, in the center of People’s Square, in front of a Mao statue at East China Normal University—anywhere they think people will see.

All over the world, we’ve managed to skirt the rain, roaming the streets, living in sunshine. But in Asia, our luck runs out. We arrive in the dead of winter, even though we haven’t planned or packed much different than we did for summertime. In Tokyo, we were American ragamuffins—layering our t-shirts, each wearing our only sweatshirt over and over again. In Shanghai, we’re just wet, terribly wet. We land in the middle of a record-setting stretch of rain. There are men using brooms to sweep the water off the sidewalk. It’s one thing to play in the warm rain of summer time, it’s another to play when it’s thirty-five degrees outside. Ferg and I buy tights and Luke and Ryan wear jeans beneath their warm-up pants and the four of us huddle beneath the umbrella we check out from our hotel. Ryan believes umbrellas bring out the worst in people—you see selfishness loud and clear as you’re jabbed in the eye, doused with repelled water, or nudged off the sidewalk in favor of the prepared people who have their lives in order and their umbrellas extended. Being tall—his face at the same level as most umbrellas—Ryan is especially susceptible to the various hazards.

The wet ball is not good for the Shanghainese streetballers’ tricks, but it does not prevent them from playing. On Saturday, they meet at the small amphitheater outside the metro station. They know all the public spots in the city where there can play without hassle from the police. It’s a different kind of soccer than Luke and I are used to—more like a performance than a game. Every guy has his own style. One guy’s specialty is a kung-fu infused ball dance, another guy is a master of the “around-the-world,” the foot somehow makes a full circle around the ball while it stays up in the air. He used the trick to woo his wife—she told him she’d marry him if he could do ten in a row. A small sixteen-year-old wearing a black I-Heart-Shanghai t-shirt and baggy jeans is a relative beginner and has not mastered a full range of tricks but his around-the-worlds are tight and clean. He and the other fourteen-year-old wear ear buds and periodically start tracing out dance moves. In order to improve their street-balling-rhythm, they’ve taken up crip-walking. In the same way the Brazilians wove the hip-sway of the Samba into their futbol, they want to make the crip-walking inflect their tricks. It’s a funny thing to stand in Shanghai, watching a sixteen-year-old try a dance that originated from a 1970s Los Angeles gang.

Not only can I not do any of their tricks, I can’t do half a trick. Compared to the snazzy juggling of these guys, even Luke is bad, and he at least knows how to do things like the “around-the-world,” even though he wouldn’t call it that because Luke doesn’t believe in naming moves—when I say things like “scissors” and “stepover,” he scoffs at me. He thinks it’s lame to name a move. He doesn’t like the idea of learning a prescribed set of movements. He thinks you should see something and then do it and then change it and then let it bleed into something else until it’s unique and unpredictable, not something you can just slap a word on. Luke has a similar approach to driving—he knows where he has to go and takes a different route to get there every time, while I sit in the passenger seat, miserably lost, longing for a route I can take over and over again. I’m not in it for new territory. I’m in it for the familiarity, for loyalty. Instincts, gut feelings—I only trust these things if I’ve spent enough time doing the same thing to know it will come out of me on its own.

But even here in Shanghai, where they are breaking the moves down for me, giving me the formula, showing me step by step, I cannot do it. I stand there behind AK as he does it again in slow motion. It has been a long time since I’ve tried to learn to a new move. I can vaguely remember this feeling of helplessness—a Sunday afternoon practice and a circle, the fear of something you don’t know how to do but dribbling into the middle and doing it anyway—I marvel over how brave I was as a kid and how not-brave I feel now. I can’t even hear what he’s telling me, I don’t want to try, I just want to stop. I’m embarrassed. I guess as we get older, and rule out the things we don’t like or aren’t good at, there are less face-to-face encounters with looking stupid. But inside the amphitheater in Shanghai, moving my legs in awkward, unfamiliar patterns—and invariably getting it wrong,--looking stupid is hard to avoid. I just wait it out until it is time to go to the neighboring park and play for real…and see if their juggling moves can translate to the field, to the game, to the kind of soccer I know how to play.

Next and final destination: Iran…

Friday, April 10, 2009

On the Rooftops

PEOPLE TOLD US not to bother going to Asia. Franklin Foer didn’t make it there—when he wrote How Soccer Explains The World, it was the one continent he left out. The passion that spanned Europe, Africa, South America, and the Middle East apparently didn’t exist in Asia. China, the most populated country in the world, rarely qualifies for the World Cup; in 2002 when they did qualify, they failed to score a single goal. When I researched the Asian pick-up scene, the Internet turned up only one article in Time magazine: “Woes in Asia.” An excerpt:

"In Japan, it's often said that we teach too much," says Yahiro Kazama, one of the few Japanese to have played professionally in Europe. Japanese kids—like others in East Asia—participate in organized after-school soccer, but tend to abandon the sport outside regulation time. "They are good at learning," says Japanese soccer commentator Michel Miyazawa. "But if I ask my son to play with a ball, he seems surprised and says 'Really? Here? Now?'"

The article concludes with the sentence, “Look around Asia and the goalposts just aren’t there.” This was discouraging.

In the editing room, we were already killing babies left and right. It’s impossible to go to twenty odd countries without acquiring more fantastic material than you could ever use. I stare at an image of somebody’s face, chewing on my knuckle, thinking, “Could we really possibly cut him? Could we really leave this out?” And then there was the other problem: with the economy going bust and our funding running dry, we were out of money anyway.

But we set out to make a movie about pick-up soccer around the world, the entire world. Luke watched J-League highlights every week and swore they were the nuttiest, most fervent fans he’d seen anywhere, and I too had seen the slew of Asian supporters at the 2006 World Cup. We didn’t believe they weren’t into it. So the four of us spent a month emailing everyone we could think of. We canvassed the celebrity world for people somehow associated to soccer, and who might, theoretically, want to help us fund the rest of our movie—Drew Carey owns an MLS team, Jon Stewart played soccer at William and Mary, Tina Fey wants her daughter to play sports, Kobe Bryant touts himself as Marta’s biggest fan, Steve Nash claims to be the NBA’s most skilled soccer player. But famous people are hard to track down. None of our brilliant plans for infiltration worked out. Instead, we worked odd jobs and answered fliers that said things like, “Alcohol study: Earn $100 to drink.” This, in conjunction with kind donations and one friend’s willingness to lend us money, was enough to get ourselves to Asia.

WE SAW A picture of a rooftop court in Tokyo—skyline bright in the background—so we came to Japan to find it. Music is everywhere, whether you’re getting on a subway, crossing the street or walking through a department store. It’s soft music, trance music. It feels like Tokyo’s made a soundtrack for your life. It’s a trippy thing to stand in the middle of Shibuya crossing, subliminal keyboard notes ruffling your thoughts as thousands of people—women with trendy hair-cuts, fingerless gloves and high-heeled boots, teenage boys with skinny jeans and fluorescent high-tops—swoop past you and your blind search for soccer courts begins.

Maybe the guy who couldn’t find the goalposts just hadn’t looked high enough. We stood on the street corners, craning our necks to the sky, as though we could see to the top of the skyscrapers. The Japanese do not label every street, and we have no address to go off of. We often feel like we’re on a massive scavenger hunt, a sometimes embarrassing scavenger hunt: we tap on shoulders and mumble sentences in broken languages. “What?” they say, frowning, leaning their heads in so the American can try again. In Tokyo, Luke repeats the sentence he has pieced together through language books and podcasts: “Do you know of any rooftop courts?” He tries different inflections until he sees sudden comprehension light up a face. This is often followed by a vigorous shake of the head—No, no, they know nothing about football courts. But eventually, we find people who point to the sky.

High above the busy crossings and electronic signs, there’s a secret world where sakka games are played. Because Tokyo is a city where space is at a premium, the courts have been snuck onto the rooftops. Entering department stores, we walk past Prada bags, Chanel counters, and ladies sampling perfume, and then we board an elevator, standing next to tired shoppers who empty out floor by floor until we reach the top.

When the doors open, we see businessmen wearing well-cut suits and deep blue scarves, leaning back against park benches. They’re smoking cigarettes, unrolling soccer socks and slipping off dress shoes. Changing right there in the open, they shimmy off their slacks and undo their button downs, donning long-sleeved replica jerseys, warm-up pants and winter gloves. They jump up and down to shake out the cold.

There are two courts cloaked in netting that prevents the ball from soaring off the rooftops. It’s not cheap to rent a court on top of the city and it’s not something they do everyday. There’s the special-occasion feeling, like renting a bowling alley or a skating rink for a birthday party. You can hear the faint sound of an automated voice: “Thank you for visiting Mitsukoshi Department Store.” As the smell of beef wafts up from the food court, we begin to play.