Thursday, November 19, 2009

Random Acts

Sam arrived at the stadium early as usual and paid for his usual seniors’ ticket. Soccer, he thought to himself, is an almost perfect game. Not, like baseball or football, so slow as to become boring, nor so fast that the play could be lost in the action. Add to that a gentle summer evening and a man couldn’t spend some leisure time in a more satisfactory manner. Unless you were a rabid fan, winning or losing didn’t matter much with the season barely underway and even at a championship game Sam was far from rabid. The continuous motion and developing patterns were enough to satisfy him.

He found a seat in his usual section, in front of the announcer’s booth but far enough away from the PA system’s speakers; high enough to see the complete field easily and away from the ramps and steps for the fans. As the seats slowly began to fill, he checked the program and watched the teams warming up.

The hometown semi-pro Wanderers were matched tonight against a squad of selected touring players who were signed with professional teams but hadn’t cracked the starting line-ups. Only one player had a nationally recognized reputation, a fullback who was returning from an injury. The Wanderers played in a regional circuit. They’d won the championship last season and most of the players from that team were back. The two that weren’t, were in Europe trying out for big-name clubs. The rest had day jobs, were paid for each game for which they were asked to suit up. And that usually went hand in hand with the number of practices they attended.

Five of the Wanderers were doing short stop-and-go sprints; a tall midfielder was warming up the goalkeeper with ten-yard shots from different angles. On the other half of the field some of the Selects had formed a loose circle and were going through a desultory passing drill. Sam turned to watch the spectators.

The crowd was small but he recognized the usual groupings. Two coaches and a couple of moms trying to ride herd on a gaggle of ten to twelve year old girls, a minor league team on an outing, They wore identical team shirts and ignored their supervisors. At the goal line a group of black high school students were trying to insult the Jamaican-born ‘keeper without success. Mediterranean men with hearty laughs and expressive hands gathered in conversational groupings. The women here could be divided into two categories: those accompanying husband or boy friend and soccer moms escorting a son or daughter. Most of the fans had an interest to which the game was only secondary: family and friends of the players, people with kids in minor soccer, immigrants who missed the general availability of the game they remembered from home. And, of course, the occasional person such as himself who had been drawn to the intricacies of the game through a televised World Cup series or European championship.

At game time the stands were little more than half-full. The introductions elicited muted applause. The national anthem, the ceremonial kickoff by someone he’d never heard of, a sharp whistle blast from the official, and the game was underway.

The first minutes of the game were not very entertaining. Passes were missed; offsides were called. Neither of the teams was able to find a rhythm. Both of the Selects’ shots sailed high over the net. The keeper easily handled the Wanderers’ only attempt. Sam kept himself amused by watching the non-soccer activities of the fans in the stand. To his left and one row up, a couple of teenagers displayed radically different reactions to the action on the field.

The young man in baggy jeans and a muscle shirt was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands to his chin. He was pointedly focusing his attention on the play, ignoring all distraction. But what a distraction. His female companion was dressed in a crop top and tight slacks. She was trying hard to draw his concentration away from the game. She rubbed her whole body along his, the way Sam’s cat moved when it smelled salmon. The girl would push her head against the boy’s shoulder, then whisper in his ear or nip a small kiss along his jaw. Twice he saw her take the boy’s hand and place it on her bare midriff and twice he quickly pulled it away. He spoke to her sharply and she withdrew a little and began to pout. In a short moment she was back at it, one side of a courting ritual. No soccer game was that good. Sam supposed the boy must have friends present at the game. To be seen escorting the young lady was OK, but don’t let your friends see you smooching! Something like that you might never live down. Sam smiled with indulgence and memory.

Back on the field things began to become interesting. A corner kick had been awarded to the Selects. The kick was an easy lob placed right in front of the goal and two attackers, but the Wanderers’ goal keeper leaped off his line and grabbed the ball before it could come to a level where it could be played off the head. An excellent save. Sam smiled his satisfaction and watched the next play develop. A fast run up the side, two quick and accurate passes, and the ball was in the penalty area. Because he was marking too close, a well-executed move drew the lone defender away from the ball. The attacking forward took his time to place it properly on his foot and drew back for what seemed to be a certain goal. Suddenly a foot came out of nowhere. The outmaneuvered defender had recovered quickly and went for the ball with a sliding tackle. The ball ended up in the keeper’s hands and the referee signaled play on. The spectators, seeing their team robbed of a sure goal, angrily called for a card. The referee and most of the players ignored their calls; the attacker shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, and trotted back after the play.

The action became tighter, more focused. Sam leaned back and watched play develop, tried to anticipate the movement of the ball the way a player would. A midfielder dashed down the sideline; two strikers moved into the middle in front of the goal, anticipating the pass. A defender made a quick move to the ball and the pass was off target, behind the attacking forwards and quickly controlled by a defender. Sometimes methodically, sometimes intensely, the game continued.

His attention kept being drawn to the family grouping seated right in front of him but three rows down, a mother with two of her children, Sam assumed. The young girl to her mother’s right looked about twelve but was following the play on the field carefully. Every once in a while she would tug at the sleeve of the woman and remark on or explain what was happening on the field. . She probably plays herself, he thought. And the mother is supportive. I hope she’s in a position to develop her skills, that such a passion doesn’t go unrewarded.

The young boy in the seat to the other side of the woman must have felt neglected. Sometimes he would try to draw his mother’s attention away from his sister but mostly he would fidget, He slowly moved along the empty seats beside him, one at a time, until his mother sharply rebuked him. He would rock side to side, then back to front, to a rhythm no one else could hear. He tucked his legs underneath him and turned his back to the game, solemnly inspecting the sparse number of fans seated behind him. When his eyes met Sam’s an involuntary staring match developed. Sam would turn his attention back to the play on the field but whenever he glanced at him, the boy was still staring. In a short time, Sam could feel the pressure of the boy’s gaze and decided to play a little game. The next time he turned to the boy he deliberately suck out his tongue. There was no reaction. The boy continued to stare solemnly at him. The next time, Sam crossed his eyes. Again, no reaction. No matter what silliness Sam came up with, the boy’s regard would not be moved.

The announcer on the public address proclaimed the attendance, praised the sponsors and their generosity in providing prizes for the night’s draw. Sam dug out his ticket stub. To his amazement he heard his number being called for one of the lesser prizes. As he rose to report to the announcer’s booth, he noticed that his young opponent had finally shifted his attention back to his mother.

The referee’s whistle signaled the end of the half. The scoreboard still stood at nil all, a scoreless draw so far. In the booth, the promo people took the names and addresses of all the winners for publicity purposes, and to add to their database of course. Sam had won a game ball. A chirpy teenaged girl explained.

“That doesn’t mean that it is the same ball they’re using tonight. It’s just that it is official, regulation size and everything. Made by the same company, you know. Heck, if we didn’t give it away tonight it might be used in one of the next games, or at practices, you know … “ Her explanation faded away.

“I see. OK.” Sam didn’t have the heart to tell her he hadn’t expected the same ball they were using on the field. “Can I leave it here and pick it up after the game? So I don’t have to sit there with the thing in my lap?”

“Oh, sure. Here, we’ll put it in a bag and write your ticket number on it so you can claim it later.”

“Not on the ball, I hope.”

“On the bag, of course.” She giggled a little self-consciously.

Now Sam was the owner of a new soccer ball. It was of little use to him and he thought about what he should do with it. Give it to one of the lads in the neighborhood? Save it for a gift for one of his grandsons? Or granddaughters, he reminded himself. Oh, well, that will be worked out somehow.

When he returned to his seat, the woman and her youngsters were gone. For some reason he hoped they hadn’t left the game altogether, that they were just doing the halftime washroom and snack bar routine. He felt they had become a part of his whole game experience.

He watched as they climbed back up to their seats. The girl was in high spirits; he gathered that one of her favorite players had waved at her from the locker room door. At least, that was the way she was interpreting it. Her mother knew better than to try to disillusion her. She was having a little trouble with her son. He was dragging his feet, with an expression of stubborn anger on his face. He probably hadn't gotten his way at the snack bar.

The second half started with a bang. With three minutes gone, a forward for the Wanderers had worked himself in front of the goal, slipped a short pass onto the foot of a charging midfielder who booted it hard into the upper left corner of the goal. The linesman signaled no offside and the home team was on the scoreboard. The fans hooted and clapped, whistled and cheered.

The game suddenly became impassioned. Sam found himself watching the action as intensely as the young girl did. Play speeded up. Chances were taken. A hard attempt to stop a player moving the ball near the sideline in front of this section of the stands caused the ball to burst into the air directly towards the area where they were sitting. The girl tugged at her mother and the two ducked. The young boy just sat there, stewing in his anger and not moving. Until the ball slammed into his face.

The kid screamed bloody murder. Sam climbed down, picked up the ball and tossed it back to the field so play could resume, and turned his attention to his wounded neighbor. The mother was trying to soothe the boy and Sam looked at his face. It wasn’t bad. The boy would sport a fine shiner for several days but nothing, not even the skin, was broken.

“You’d better take the lad down to the first aid, missus. They’ll need to know and they can probably supply a cold compress to help with the swelling,” Sam urged. The woman glanced toward her daughter. “No need to worry about her. I’ll keep an eye on her so she won’t have to miss any of the game.”

When the boy and his mother had left, Sam settled into the seat next to the young lady. They watched the game closely but still took time to introduce themselves and talk a bit about soccer.

Her name was Tiffany. She was twelve and a half. She loved soccer and played on a team herself, “under fifteen, with lots bigger girls.” As Sam had guessed, her passion and skill had already caught the eye of a coach looking to develop players for serious competition. The facts and comments flowed easily as they kept their attention on the game. She had won a season’s pass from the Wanderers in a skills competition earlier this summer. Her little brother, Kevin, didn’t want to go but their mom couldn’t find someone to watch him. Sam himself didn’t have to say a word. Suddenly she tugged at his arm.

“Watch him!” She pointed to the Wanderer rushing up the right wing with the ball, two of the Select defenders trying to cut off his angle of attack. They blocked his progress near the corner and he was forced to pass it back.

“Darn! If he had passed it across about three steps earlier, the guy in the center was open for a real good shot.”

Sam grinned at her. “You really know your game if you could see that coming!”

“They tried that earlier. It didn’t work that time either.”

They fell silent as the Selects were awarded a free kick just outside the Wanderers box. The ball sailed to the left of the defensive wall of players. A rushing Select intercepted its course with his head and nodded it behind the moving keeper. The officials signaled goal and a groan came from the spectators. Before play could start again, the referee checked his watch and whistled the end of the game. A one all draw.

As the players shook hands on the field, Sam looked around for Tiffany’s mother to make her way back against the slow flow of leaving spectators. He tapped her shoulder.

“Can you wait here? I have to get something at the announcers’ booth. If your mom comes, don’t leave until I’ve had a chance to talk to her, OK?”

When he hurried back she was still there, watching the players slowly make their way off the field as they discussed plays they had made or missed. On impulse, he held out the bag with the game ball to her.

“Here. I won a game ball in the ticket draw, and since I can’t use it I’d like you to have it. I wanted to wait for your mom and ask her if it would be alright, but she hasn’t come back yet.”

“Thank you!” A wide smile lit up her face. Then a mischievous glint appeared in her eye.

“Here come mom and Kevin. Why don’t you give it to him? We’ll let him think it’s the one that hit him in the face. He’ll brag about it for weeks!”

He and Tiffany made their way down to the waiting pair. The youngster’s cheek was already beginning to bruise.

“Missus, I won the game ball in the half-time draw. I’d like to present it to your young man here so he can show his buddies what whacked him in the face. With your permission, of course.”

She thanked him. “You don’t have to do this. Do you want the ball, Kevin? Say thank you to the kind man.” The boy took the bag and shyly snuggled against his mother’s side.

“Oh, but it’s my pleasure. It gave me the chance to chat with a very knowledgeable young soccer player. I haven’t enjoyed a game so much in some time.” Sam suddenly realized the truth in his declaration.

The mother and her children headed toward the exit. Tiffany turned and waved as they reached the gate. He realized that he hadn’t gotten their last name, then figured it didn’t matter. A random chain of occurrences had brought a little joy to his own day. He smiled reflexively at the empty soccer field before beginning his walk home.