“Most of the time the concept of globalization ends up sounding unnecessarily abstruse—even the name itself sounds clunky & highfalutin. People discuss it in a way that makes it seem so impersonal. But globalization really is a concrete, fundamental fact in everybody’s lives, & you really see that come to life in soccer stadiums…Of course, there is a way in which soccer also allows people to transition through major changes in their own lives. As their world gets turned upside down by globalization, being able to cling to something local & familiar & traditional really does help.” Franklin Foer, the author of How Soccer Explains the World
Local. Familiar. Traditional. Ah, soccer.
In my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to have soccer, and a rather innate ability to play it, take me to faraway and distant places that I never would have seen otherwise. I’ve spanned the entirety of New York State from Buffalo to Lake George, Elmira to Long Island. I’ve journeyed across the sweeping, flat plains and deserts of Texas. I’ve seen a State Championship within the biting, icy November snow of central New York and a Sweet Sixteen Regional Tournament in the shadow of Denver, Colorado’s glass skyline with the Rocky Mountains receding in background. I’ve played under the open expanse of the Montana sky, in the dry heat of Kansas, amidst palm trees and sand in Florida. I’ve dribbled, shot and ran across Germany and France, Belgium and Holland. I’ve kicked the ball lazily in a backyard in Finland. I rode a bus, full of soccer balls, sweat and smell, through the swelling mountain ranges and valleys of Brazil. I’ve played on turf, and dirt, on meticulously manicured grass of famous stadiums and on ragged, sandy, humble yards. And yesterday, I laced up my Copas with shaking fingers and jogged out to play on the uneven grassy pitch in Thailand.
Every evening for the past month I’ve watched, almost jealously, as the Mathayom 5 boys trot home—cleats hanging their hands, sweat staining the backs of their shirts and clinging, still, to their temples. And since today, I’ve been too timid to join their ranks, despite my fierce desire.
I’ve been teaching English at Princess Chulabhorn’s College in Phistanulok, Thailand since November, as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant. And although it takes an enormous amount on confidence to stand in front of classrooms packed with 4o inattentive high school students who can barely speak your language, I found that to be easier then taking that first step onto that field.
But May, a young Thai teacher who I’ve made friends with, agreed to accompany me out to the field after school to introduce me, the uncomfortable part that I feared the most. As I walked out, my Copas untied and loose, my soccer ball clutched underneath my arm, I felt their curious eyes on me. Bong, a male teacher who lives with the boys in their dormitory, saddled up to me. “Teacher play futbol?” “Yes, yes. Can I?” Looking at his face, there didn’t seem to be a moment of doubt, hesitation or resistance. He motioned with amusement, “Yes, yes, first you can warm up!”
But, I hesitated, I admit. I stood there for a moment wondering where my feet were. I felt apprehensive, as if it was one
of those first days of soccer camp, my first try-out at St. Edward’s University where I played as a college student-athlete for four years. Where your every move, every flick of your foot, is watched, monitored, judged. Where you have to prove yourself.
The boys stood off to the side in little hushed clusters and gazed at me out of the corners of their eyes. I could just feel them. But Bong jogged enthusiastically over to the goal and motioned for me to shoot. I hadn’t touched a ball since I juggled playfully with my brother in the backyard almost two months ago. But, I tapped the ball forward and tried not to cringe as I struck a shot at the white netting. It soared, banking the pole in the upper right-hand corner. “Ooooui!” echoed across the field. I still had it.
After a few minutes of passing the ball over the notched ground with Bong, the 40-some-odd boys split up into four teams and we began to play games of 11 v. 11, rotating after each goal or at the end of 15 minutes. Despite the ever-growing crowd of boys, I was invited to play every match, switching teams to play with those who had their shirts on. We, thankfully, played shirts and skins. I couldn’t remember names, let alone teams, let alone the word for “pass.”
But the miraculous thing I’ve discovered about soccer, about any sport, is the absolute dissolution of cultural barriers that occurs when you step upon a pitch, a field, a court. The rules of soccer are the rules of soccer, wherever you are—the park behind your high school in the United States, the famed stadium in downtown Sao Paolo, the rough-and-tumble field in front of Princess Chulabhorn’s College. There is suddenly no need to speak the same language, to have the same ideologies, to practice the same religion. You can just play, uninhibited and unrestricted, without judgment or alienation. It truly is miraculous.
It took a few minutes to get my legs back, to find the rhythm of their play, to observe and be wary of their aggressive tendencies to win air balls with wild, flying feet. Sure, there were awkward collisions, miscommunications, clumsy passes and wild shots, but it’s soccer, not ballet. It’s part of the game. Soon, the boys were not too shy to tackle me and I found myself constantly wiping the sweat from their chests off my arms. They were a physical and fun bunch, and I felt as if I could have been playing with my brother and his friends under the twinkling lights of my quaint hometown park. My attempted shots on goal were always rewarded with claps and shouts, although I disappointingly never finished. They didn’t seem to mind though.
I lost track of time on the field, my mind consumed with passes, runs and shots. Nothing else. The sun began to set and the bugs came out to feast upon the perspiration gathered on my shins. After the fifth game, I decided to return to my house on campus. I unlaced my cleats, looking down with a tomboyish smile at the smears of dirt on my legs, the red marks on my ankles, the blisters forming on the back of heels. It felt like home to play again.
As I left, Bong cried, “See you Monday!” and the other boys waved and shouted, “Goodbye Teacher!” with wide grins. I scurried home to shower off the sweat and sensation. Then I sat, with my Thai/English dictionary, and looked up pass, shoot, outside, time and man. Because, next Monday, I vowed to be ready.