First, a Little Bit about Me, though I am Not Important Here
I came to this fine country from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the winter of 1992, a couple of months before the war started. I did not plan to stay in the USA unless someone offered me a job, which crossed no American mind. I came to Chicago to visit my friend George and was supposed to fly back on May 1, the day the siege of Sarajevo commenced. Thus I got stuck here, no job or money, my only asset George and a couple of his friends. My life changed overnight and I became profoundly miserable: I watched CNN extensively and voyeuristically as it covered the slow killing of my hometown, and felt thoroughly disconnected from the world around me.
By Bosnian standards, I had been an athletic person. Even though I smoked two packs a day for years and enjoyed many an alcoholic potion, I had played soccer once or twice a week since time immemorial. But upon arriving in this country, I gained weight due to a diet based on Burger King and Twinkies and exacerbated by a series of tortuous attempts to quit smoking. Furthermore, I couldn’t find anybody to play soccer with. Not playing soccer tormented me. It wasn’t about being healthy – I was young enough not to care about my health – it was about feeling fully alive. Without soccer I was at sea, mentally and physically.
One Saturday in the summer of 1995, I was riding my bike by a lakeside field in Uptown and saw a group of people warming up and kicking the ball around. They might have been getting ready for a league game, but before I had time to consider the humiliating prospect of rejection, I asked if I could join them. ‘Sure,’ they said. That day I played for the first time in three years, twenty-five pounds heavier, wearing denim cut-offs and basketball shoes. I instantly pulled my groin and quickly earned blisters on my soles. I humbly played defence (although I’m a natural forward) and strictly obeyed the commands of the best player on my team– one Phillip, who had been, I learned much later, on the Nigerian 4 x 400 relay team at the Seoul Olympics. After the game, I asked Phillip if I could come back. ‘Ask that guy,’ Phillip said, and pointed at the ref. The ref introduced himself as ‘German’, and told me they played every Saturday and Sunday and I was welcome.
The Tibetan Goalie
German was not German – he was from Ecuador, but his father was born in Germany, hence the nickname. He was a UPS truck driver in his mid-forties, suntanned, wearing a moustache. Every Saturday and Sunday, he’d arrive by the lake around 2.00 p.m. in a decrepit, twenty five-year-old van, on which a soccer ball and the words kick me make my day were painted. He’d unload goalposts and nets, bagfuls of single-colour T-shirts and balls, plus the flags of different countries – Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, the United States, Spain, Nigeria – and he’d distribute the shirts to the guys who came to play. Most of them lived in Uptown and Edgewater and were from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Belize, Brazil, Jamaica, Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia, Senegal, Eritrea, Ghana, Cameroon, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, France, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Ukraine, Russia, Vietnam, Korea. There was even a guy from Tibet, and he was a very good goalie.
Normally, there’d be more than two teams, so the games lasted for fifteen minutes or until one team scored two goals. The games were very serious, as the winner stayed on the field, while the losing team had to wait on the sidelines. German refereed and he almost never called a foul – it seemed he needed to hear the sound of a breaking bone to use his whistle. Sometimes, if a team needed a player, he’d referee and play. He was particularly hard on himself and once he gave himself a yellow card for a brutal tackle. We – immigrants trying to stay afloat in this country – found comfort in playing by the rules we set ourselves. It made us feel that we still were part of a world much bigger than the United States.
I’d often be the first one to arrive before the games. I’d help German set up the goals and talk to him and others. In his magic van, German had photos of people who had played with him. I recognized some of the guys when they were much younger. One of them, whom everyone called Brazil since he was from Brazil, told me they had been playing for more than twenty years and German had been organizing games from the beginning, although at one point he’d had some drug and booze problems and had taken a few years off. But he came back, Brazil said. It was possible, I understood, to live in this country and still have a past shared with other people.
It wasn’t clear to me why German was doing it. Even though I like to think of myself as a reasonably generous person, I could never imagine spending every single weekend putting together soccer games and refereeing, subjecting myself to verbal and other kinds of abuse, then loading up the van after everybody had left and washing a large number of T-shirts stinky with worldly sweat.
So I abused German’s inexplicable generosity for years (outdoors in the summer, indoors in the winter). I’d often catch a ride in his clunky kick me make my day van, fearing for my life, as he was prone to celebrating the successful completion of a game with a few beers (he always had a well-stocked cooler in his van).He’d tell me about his favourite team (the Cameroon 1990 World Cup team) and about his search for a successor, someone who’d continue organizing the games once he retired and moved to Florida. He couldn’t find the right person, he said, because people didn’t have the guts to commit.
Once, during a blood-curdling ride home on the icy streets of Chicago, I asked him why he was doing it all. He was doing it for God, he said. God had instructed him to put people together, to spread His love, and it became his mission. I was uncomfortable, as I actively hate Bible toters, so I didn’t ask him anything beyond that. But he never proselytized, never asked people about their religion, never flaunted his faith – people’s belief in soccer was enough for him. He told me he was planning to buy a piece of land in Florida when he retired and build a church and a soccer field next to it. He’d preach and after the sermon his parishioners would play while he refereed.
German retired a few years ago at the end of the summer. One of the last weekends before he departed, we played in sweltering heat. Everybody was testy; hummingbird-sized flies were ravenous; the field was hard, humidity high, humility low; a few fights broke out. The sky was darkening over the line of skyscrapers along Lake Shore Drive, rain simmering in the clouds, close to boiling over. And then a cold front hit us, as if somebody opened a gigantic cooler, and rain arrived abruptly. I had never seen anything like it: the rain started at the other end of the field and then moved across it towards the far goal, steadily advancing, like a German World Cup team. We started running away from the rain, but it quickly caught up with us and we were soaked in no time.There was something terrifying about its blind power – its chaotic randomness. As it washed over us in waves, nothing depended on our minds or wills.
I ran towards German’s van, as towards an ark, escaping the flood. There were other guys there already: German; Max from Belize; a man from Chile (consequently known as Chile); Rodrigo, German’s car mechanic, who miraculously kept the van alive for more than twenty years; and Rodrigo’s droopy, bare-chested buddy, who didn’t seem to speak English at all, sitting on the cooler, occasionally handing out beers. We took shelter in the van; the rain clattered against the roof, as though we were in a coffin, shovelfuls of dirt dropping on us.
I asked German if he thought he’d find people to play with in Florida. He was sure he’d find somebody, he said, for if you give and ask for nothing in return there’s bound to be someone to take it. Chile started saying something that you’d expect in a New Age manual – something vapid about self-actualization and unconditional surrender. ‘And what if they are old and can’t run?’ I asked German. ‘If they’re old,’ German said, ‘they are close to entering the eternity, and they need courage. Soccer might help them get it.’
Now, I’m an atheistic man, vain and cautious. I give little, expect a lot and ask for more – what he was saying seemed far too heavy, naive and simplistic. It would have, in fact, seemed heavy, naive and simplistic if the following was not taking place.
Hakeem, the Nigerian who plays every day of his life, runs up to the van and asks us if we have seen his keys. ‘Are you out of your mind?’ we say, as the rain is pouring through the window. ‘Can’t you see it’s the end of the fucking world. Look for your keys later.’ ‘Kids,’ he says, ‘I’m looking for my kids.’ Then we watch Hakeem running through the rain, collecting his two terrified children hiding under a tree. He moves like a shadow against the intensely grey curtain of rain, the kids hanging on his chest like little koalas. Meanwhile, on the bike path, Lalas (nicknamed after the American soccer player) stands beside his wife in a wheelchair. She has a horrific case of MS and can’t move fast enough to get out of the rain. They stand together, waiting for the calamity to end, Lalas in his Uptown United T-shirt, his wife under a piece of cardboard that is slowly and irreversibly dissolving in the rain. The Tibetan goalie and his Tibetan friends, whom I had never seen before and never would after that day, are playing a game on the field completely covered with water, as if running in slow motion on the surface of a placid river. The ground is giving off vapour, the mist touching their ankles, and at moments it seems that they’re levitating a few inches above the ground, untouched by the flood. Lalas and his wife are watching them with perfect calm, as if nothing could ever harm them. They see one of the Tibetans scoring a goal, the rain-heavy ball sliding between the goalie’s hands. The goalie is untroubled, smiling, and from where I am, he could be the Dalai Lama himself.
So this, gentlemen, is what this little narrative is about: the moment of transcendence that might be familiar to those who practise sports with other people; the moment, arising from the chaos of the game, when all your teammates occupy the ideal position on the field; the moment when the universe seems to be arranged by a meaningful will that is not yours; the moment that perishes – as moments tend to – when you complete the pass; and all you have left is a vague, physical, orgasmic memory of the instant you were completely connected with the world around you.
Since German left, I’ve been playing in a park at Belmont, south of Uptown. It’s a wholly different crowd: a lot more Europeans, thoroughly assimilated Latinos, and a few Americans. Often, when I get too excited, someone might tell me, ‘Relax, it’s just exercise…’ whereupon I suggest that they go and run on a fucking treadmill and let me play the game the way the game’s supposed to be played. No Uptown player would’ve ever said a thing like that, for we took our soccer seriously.
One of the Belmont people is Lido, a seventy-five-year-old Italian. Like many a man over fifty, Lido is totally delusional about his physical prowess. Topped with a lamentable toupee he never fails to wear, he’s prone to discussing, after he loses the ball, all his brilliant intentions and all your obvious errors. Lido is a good, decent man.
I’ve retained the habit of showing up early for the game, ever tormented by the possibility of not being allowed to join in, and Lido is often there before everyone else. Sometimes he arrives flustered and annoyed, because he saw one of our American fellow players hiding in the park, staying away from us in order to avoid the uncomfortable pre-game chit-chat. ‘What kind of people are they?’ Lido grumbles. ‘What are they afraid of? Such things would never happen in Italy.’ He’s originally from Florence and proudly wears a Fiorentina jersey. In Italy, Lido says, people are always willing to talk to you and help you. If you ask them for directions, they’re ready to leave their stores and houses unattended to take you where you want to go. And they talk to you, nicely, politely and not like these – and he points towards the trees and bushes behind which the shy Americans are cowering. When I ask him how often he goes to Italy, he says not very. He keeps a beautiful Ferrari there, he explains, and there are a lot of jealous people in Italy: they steal his wheels, smash his blinkers, scratch the doors with a nail. He doesn’t like to go, he says, because people are not very nice. When I cautiously remind him that just a few moments ago he was claiming that Italians were incredibly nice, he exclaims, ‘Yes, yes, very nice,’ and I give up. It seems that Lido is able to hold two mutually exclusive thoughts without inner conflict – a quality, I realize in a flash, not uncommon among artists.
Lido came to Chicago in the Fifties. In Florence he and his brother restored Renaissance frescoes and old paintings, which are apparently a dime a dozen there, and when they arrived in Chicago, they started a business. He’s been doing well since and he, as they say, loves life. He’s been spotted with a young, endowed beauty or two clinging to his forearms or enjoying a ride in his American Ferrari. Besides the beauties, he seems to have had several wives and has recently married again.
Once Lido told me – after pointing at the Americans peeking from behind the trees – how dilettantes and buffoons ruined the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo’s masterpiece, under the pretence of restoring it. Despite my rich ignorance on the matter, Lido described to me all the errors they had committed. For example, they used solvent and sponge to take the patina off the frescoes. Lido insisted that I imagine that, and I did: assaulting the helpless Michelangelo with sponge and solvent. He got all worked up and, at that moment, cleaning up the Michelangelo verily appeared to me as a grievous act – I imagined a god far too pale to be omnipotent, or even powerful.
But those in charge of the restoration, Lido went on, realized that they had screwed up the creation of the universe according to Michelangelo and begged him to come and fix it. Lido sent them a five-page invective, in essence suggesting that they shove the sponge and solvent up their asses. What they didn’t understand, Lido said, was that the patina is the essential part of the fresco – that the world the Almighty created on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was incomplete until the mortar fully absorbed the paint, until it all became a little darker. It wasn’t a sunny day when God created the world, Lido thundered. Without the patina it was all worth shit.
As he told me this, Lido was sitting on his ball (size four, overinflated) and, in his righteous ire, he made the wrong move and slid off the ball, tumbling down on the ground. I helped him get up, feeling the wrinkled, worn-out skin on his elbow, touching his human patina.
Then the sheepish Americans emerged from behind the bushes and trees, the rest of the soccer universe arrived and Lido – a man who takes any disrespect towards Michelangelo and the Creation as a personal insult – installed himself in the attack, ready to score a spectacular goal.
Whoever created Lido ought to be satisfied: Lido is perfectly complete. The rest of us must roll in the dirt, get weather-beaten, collect the patina, earn our right to simply, unconditionally be. And whenever I pass the ball to Lido – fully aware that it is going to be miskicked and wasted – I have the pleasant, tingling sensation of being connected with something bigger and better than me, the sensation wholly inaccessible to those who think soccer is about exercise.
Photograph © Velibor Bozovic