Over the past month or so the World Cup has brought soccer to the forefront of everyone’s minds, including us “football”-loathing Americans. I played organized soccer for nearly 16 years (whether YMCA, club, high school, or intramurals in college), I was a soccer referee for 3 years in high school, and I even coached a team of five and six-year-olds for two seasons.
As a result of my long history with the sport, the past month of World Cup soccer has often left me reminiscing over these “glory” days, and I thought I’d share a few recollections. These are somewhat random, but I’ve ordered them under Playing, Refereeing, and Coaching.
- “I’m sure they didn’t mean to!”
- My favorite part about playing club soccer when I was younger was the team cameraderie. My teammates were my best friends, and there was nothing more fun than having all of our families make a seven hour drive to put up in a hotel and play in a tournament.
- One tournament was in Greensboro, NC. It was the Hooter’s Tournament, and I was 13. After our last match one day, we all went out to Applebees. Us kids finished eating way before the parents, so we left the table and wandered around outside.
- I had just gotten outside and was walking on the sidewalk when all of a sudden I heard a sickening *crunch*. I looked down, and to my dismay I’d stepped on a baby bird. I looked up, and sure enough there was a birds nest on the roof full of little chicks.
- I felt terrible, but I didn’t know what to do. Just a few minutes later, some of my teammates emerged and one of them saw the bird. They immediately shouted and pointed it out to everyone else.
- Noone knew who had stepped on it, and none assumed it was one of us. Immediately everyone started saying things like “Who could have done this?!” “They must have been evil!”, etc.
- All I remember saying was (in a very meek voice): “I’m sure they didn’t meeaaan to!” I felt terrible, and to this day that memory is seared in my conscious.
- A cheap shot elbow to the face, some stitches, and a little surgery
- During one game in high school, when I was 15, there was a particular sweeper on the other team that I just didn’t get along with. He had been talking shit to some of the players on my team, and so him and I had started to jab back and forth.
- Sweeper is generally a leadership position, but it was clear that this guy had no respect from his teammates, and so I was constantly making fun of him for that while he was complaining about my big ears. Then, at one point in the game, he came up behind me and punched me hard in the middle of my back when the ref wasn’t looking. I turned around and punched him right back in the chest, and then he started screaming “Ref! Ref!” It made me sick.
- Not ten minutes later, a ball was played over our heads. I had to turn to start running, and just as my head swung around PHWACK! He had thrown his elbow into my nose, and I was on the ground with a ridiculous amount of blood pouring down my face.
- As I got to my feet, he had run to the other side of the field, because it was obvious that I was going to come after him. As soon as my mom saw this, she started running down the hill and onto the field. I had put both of my middle fingers in the air and was screaming every curse word I knew at this guy who had just cheap-shotted me in the face.
- I ended up needing 8 stitches on the inside of my nose, as well as surgery to straighten it. My best friend on the team, Matt, got a red card on the next play for a vicious tackle on the same guy. That’s what friends do for each other.
- All that said, 9 years later I’ve learned enough to understand that violence ain’t cool, and neither is cussing at someone while giving them the two-handed bird in front of your mom, even if you’re in shock and blood is pouring down your face.
- When I was younger I always hated that he got the “best” of that interaction. And he did, if you think there’s honor in elbowing someone in the face when they’re not looking.
- There will be thrown grass, and mayhem
- My high school club team was tied for first in our league, and one of our last games was against our rivals from Dublin, Georgia. They feed their children quite well in rural Dublin, and those kids outweighed us by 20lbs a person and were atleast 6 inches taller on average.
- After getting down 2-0, we came back and were winning 3-2 with just a few minutes to play. The Dublin players were furious, and none more than their stopper who was atleast 6 feet tall and a full head taller than me. I was running down the line ahead of a thrown in, and when I tried to jump pass the guy he stuck his elbows out, planted them on my chest and drove me into the ground.
- Laying there on the ground, I couldn’t have been more furious. I grabbed a handful of grass in each hand, stood up, and launched the two handfuls of dirt and grass right into the guy’s face. Before I knew it, the entire parents’ bench for the other team was running down the hill and onto the soccer field howling in protest.
- Less than two minutes later, the ref called the game five minutes earlier than they should have because every single play was a vicious foul. My team and parents feared for my safety for my role in the whole debacle, so I was quickly escorted to the car and driven home.
- The other team appealed for a rematch to the state soccer association but was refused, and we took our #1 seed to the state tournament.
- As a referee, The worst group of parents, inevitably and consistently, were the Under-10 parents. Every match was a fight to the death, and every throw-in was a direct reflection of the moral and social character of their precious child. Under-10 was the hardest to ref, because you didn’t get sideline referees and the field was quite big. As a result, you’re bound to make some calls with limited information. And God help you when you do, because those parents will be calling for you to be strung from your toes and whipped in the center of town. Doesn’t matter that you’re just a 16-year-old kid trying to make a few bucks.
- There are few things more enjoyable as a referee than giving someone a card. A yellow card, or if you’re lucky a red card, reminds everyone who’s in charge. In a game where you’re constantly being berated by players, coaches, and fans, sometimes its nice to remind them who’s the boss.
- No matter how quickly they appear to shrug it off, every ref loves to be told that they did a good job.
- Refs got paid the age level plus 7 for recreational games, and age plus 11 for club games. So for a club match between U-12s (Under-12s), you’d get $23. Not bad, though I’m sure inflation has driven it up since then. Linemen got age plus 1, typically.
- The lady who governed and assigned the referrees when I played was eventually fired from the soccer association, along with her husband! They were basically accused of giving all the center ref games (that is, the ones that paid the most) to their children and friends, which wasn’t fair to the other refs who would make substantially less.
- Coaching was awesome. However, when you’re coaching 6-year-olds, you’re not exactly planning tactical invasions. Instead, you’re trying to teach little kids the very basics of the game.
- When I started coaching, it was in the middle of the season. That meant that when the “draft” happened, I got the kids that had never played before and that didn’t go through tryouts to be drafted. This was a significant disadvantage, and meant that I got the kids that noone else really wanted.
- Teaching 5-year-olds the rules of soccer is a lot like teaching 12-year-olds ancient philosophy: it requires a lot of creativity and persistence. What I learned was that to teach kids the rules, you had to make everything a game.
- For example, to teach the kids how to do a proper throw-in, I would line them up, each with ball in their hand. I would go down the line, and if they did the throw-in correctly, I would let it hit my head and then I would dramatically fall to the ground as if they’d severely injured me. If they did the technique the wrong way, I’d simply catch it with my hands and throw it back. It’s amazing how effectively this worked.
- You also had to make practice fun, so the last 10 minutes (or 15%) of practice was devoted to duck-duck-goose. It doesn’t matter that duck-duck-goose has nothing to do with soccer. The point was that it made soccer practice fun, and encourage the kids to want to come back twice a week.
- My second season with my team we won EVERY game, against over 8 opponents. Not only did I have the scraps of the litter (since my team was assembled mid-season with the smallest of kids), but we’d also had 4 months less of practice. There was no final tournament, but after we won our last (and every) game, I couldn’t have been prouder of our rag-tag team. We beat every team, including teams that had kids that had played twice as long as our team, and I couldn’t have been prouder.