Friday, September 22, 2006

This is why I love soccer tournaments

Your alarm goes off way too early, so you're still not quite awake while you're trying to get dressed and get all your gear together. You drive to the park with a carful of boys in warmup pants and sweatshirts, and you stop at Tim Horton's on the way because caffeine is essential. The weather always seems to cooperate for this one weekend -- perfect Indian summer, sunny and warm but not too warm -- but it's still cool first thing in the morning, and the grass is wet with dew, so everyone perches on coolers and bags while they put their cleats on. The field is bumpy, and there are big bare patches in front of both goals, and the lines look like they were drawn by somebody who was drunk.

The first 10 minutes of the first game are brutal -- your legs are heavy and you can't seem to catch your breath, and you'd come off if you could but the ref is a sadistic bastard who'll only let you sub on goal kicks. But you get through it and it gets better and then the game seems to end so soon.

There's only an hour between games, which is just enough time for your muscles to all stiffen up before you have to play again. You take off your shoes and socks and jersey and lay them out in the sun, hoping that they'll dry out a bit before the next game. You lie back with your head on your bag for a pillow and talk about nothing and everything with the guys on your team, or talk trash about the players in the games between your own.

Sometimes -- far too often -- the games aren't pretty; a mad scramble after the ball, nobody seems to be playing their position, neither team holds onto possession for more than 30 seconds at a time. But then sometimes it all comes together -- a one-two down the line, a pretty passing move around the 18-yard box, a gorgeous goal -- and it reminds you that this is why you're playing.

You survive for the whole weekend on granola bars and bananas and gatorade, because there isn't really enough time between games for a proper meal, although a few people are brave -- or foolhardy enough -- to go to McDonald's for lunch. Somebody's wife brings oranges for halftime, and you squirt orange juice on your jersey and get pulp caught in your teeth and feel like you're 12 years old again.

Somebody's parents come to watch, so you have to be careful about your language when you're yelling from the sidelines. Someone else brings their kids, so you have to be even more careful. One little boy has a Spiderman toy clutched in his hand, and a cape made of what looks like a tea towel tied around his shoulders, and he refuses to put his shoes on the right feet. The kids kick a ball around on the sidelines - the ball comes up most of the way to their knees, so they can't really kick it properly, but it keeps them entertained for hours and you wish you had half their energy.

At the end of the day, you go to the pub with your team, and you have a cheeseburger and fries and a cold beer, and it's the best thing you've ever tasted. You only have the one beer -- not because you're worried about being hungover the next day, but because you're so tired that you almost pass out at the table. You go home and take a bath and crawl into bed, and the next day you get up and do it all over again.

The tournament turns into a war of attrition more than anything else. There are players with twisted ankles and sore knees, and knocks on the head, and bruises and scrapes everywhere. You ice the sorest spots in between games, and you just hope that you'll have 11 players who can stand up by the end of it. You give up a couple of bad fouls because you're too tired to get back and cover properly; you make a couple of good tackles, and you smirk when the other guy complains that it should've been a free kick and the ref just ignores him.

The final game comes down to penalty kicks, and you stand in a line with your teammates, arms around each others' shoulders, and you hold your breath with every shot. You watch your goalie's shoulders slump when the other team scores with their final kick, and then you line up to shake hands with them and wish them good luck in the next game, even though you're really hoping that somebody -- anybody -- will knock them out.

Even after you're out, you hang around at the park to watch your friends on another team. The cooler has beer in it now instead of water and oranges, and you taunt the people who are still playing with it. You're sweaty and sunburnt and every muscle in your body hurts, and you can't think of a better way to spend a weekend.

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