 Pickup Soccer: Why Men Play


Many of the men came regularly and Matt knew them by name – at least by their nicknames. Kris laid supine, flexing and extending one knee after the other. Ejikeme throttled up and down a short distance.

A man whom Matt had seen many times without ever hearing anyone scream his name during a game was tugging on his soccer shoe laces. ‘What a leg,’ Matt marveled in silence. Never had he seen legs like it, so bowed and so large, resembling a horse’s neck.

Matt received and returned short passes with a group of players arranged in an incomplete circle. ‘Large crowd today,’ a participant observed.

Elder Jim’s restless eyes turned to the wall clock above the emergency exit sign: 7:15 AM. ‘Time to start,’ he grumbled.
In choosing sides and teammates, players either wore a green colored sleeveless vest or a variety of colors other than green. Elder Jim, a taut-muscled man with a narrow head full of gray hair, dipped his bony fingers into an open black bag, set on the floor next to the padded side wall.

He walked out into the middle of the field, distributing the green vests to various players at random. Some of the jerseys he tossed to recipients, and some he gave out direct.
Those who did not receive the green vest – the shirts – belonged to the competing side.

Jim skipped the player with legs the size of a horse’s neck, who was still stooping to pull on his soccer shoe laces. Still searching and picking, he found Matt and tagged him with a vest. Matt caught the bulk of the green vest and with it a whiff of smell.

Without pinching his nose, Matt held his breath. The smell reminded him of two-day-old armpit odor in an unwashed shirt he used when playing soccer as a kid during the era of Nigerian-Biafran war.

‘Not today, Jim,’ answered Matt, tossing the vest back to Jim and allowing a handful of air to get into his nose.
‘Didn’t we play well together last Saturday?’ asked Jim, displaying his set of upper teeth, one of which enjoyed a silver crown.

‘Sure, but the green jersey…’ Matt began to explain.
‘Nobody here is your mother. Show a little bit of sportsmanship.’ Jim leveled up his shoulders and pushed his chest out.

Red blood rushed into the veins on both sides of his neck and around his forehead.
‘Never say anything about Mother, ‘responded Matt.

Kris, who hated Matt but had not made his unfriendliness clear enough, suspected a tug between Jim and Matt. He took off his round-framed glasses, and winked, waved and wiggled until he made contact and took possession of the vest.

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When everybody, thirteen greens and thirteen shirts, had taken sides, the ball rolled to the center of the field.
Immediately the greens began to pummel those wearing shirts. They spaced out in the field, shared the ball and did not become arrogant when they scored three goals against the shirts.

Lost by a player in a shirt, Kris received the ball from a fellow green. He danced further out to the left, eluding the player with horse-sized legs, and crossed the ball to the center of the eighteen. Another green shirt shot the ball as it landed. The goalie in the shirt dived with an outstretched hand, an inch short.

The greens scored two more goals. They more the greens scored, the more those in the shirts screamed at one another.

‘Fall back to defense!’ said one shirt.

‘Shut up and play your shit!’ replied another shirt.

Midway into the game the large bow-legged man located Matt and rewarded him with a long loop ball. Matt, who was at the right corner at the edge of the opponent’s eighteen, extended his right leg to control the ball with the inner part of the foot. The ball obeyed and waited for further deployment.

‘You need to get past me,’ swore Kris, already flailing both legs and charging like a ram in combat.
Matt backed and leaned on him lightly, his hand touching a pendulous soft pad of fat. Kris escaped and lodged in front of Matt. In the counter-offense he left his legs wide open; Matt threaded the ball in-between them and retrieved it from the other side.

The man with the thick legs rushed to help. ‘Pass the ball!’ he yelled. Matt contemplated for a second. ‘Forget about what the coach told you as a kid,’ a voice whispered in his head. ‘Scoring is everything in soccer. Not your team winning, but you scoring. Never repeat the mistakes you made as a kid, where the guys who scored got the ovation and you who assisted them got nothing, not even a name mention.’

Many green shirts converged on him, like hungry flies after a village girl with open leg wounds. The greens expected him to pass, but instead he volleyed the ball over them into the penalty space, protecting the ball with his right hand against many green chests.

Who should he see guarding the goal but Jim? Jim lurched forward, and Matt shot at the post. The moment Matt shot the ball Jim remembered how, as a seven year old, he had conceded a goal and let his team down. ‘Never again,’ he swore, sprawling on the floor like a two year old in a tantrum.

A thunder-shot hit his torso and the ball bounced back to Matt.
Matt balanced the ball on his instep, then dribbled it half a yard to the right and shot a second time, determined to make good this time on a similar ball he failed to score in his junior high school.