Occasionally I regret that I didn't start playing soccer earlier in life. Compared to the darker clouds of lost youth, it's a small regret, but it nags me with surprising regularity. The larger if only's are usually accompanied by the but then's that temper regret with an awareness of other opportunities. But it doesn't work that way with me and soccer.
I remember how, as a child in England, I would cling to my father's hand as we pushed through crowds of shouting soccer fans to get as close to the action as possible. At games, my father, a proper Englishman, would try to suppress his excitement, which manifested itself in contorted jerks of his body and bursting grunts of frustration at bad passes or missed goals. Being an even more proper little English girl, I would sit quietly, pink-ribboned and lace-frocked, watching attentively while the crowd roared and my father muttered.
During the following 25 years, my father organized several youth soccer leagues, both in Canada and in the United States. My four younger brothers played in some of them. In true British big-sister tradition, I would go to their games and watch. It never occurred to me to be anything but a spectator, and as each of my brothers developed into a star, I stood on the sidelines with all the other sisters.
As I look back over my rocky relationship with soccer, I am aware mainly of duplicity. I grew up with the sport but didn't kick a soccer ball until I was 30. And when I did, I discovered that soccer is simple only until you play it. Then it becomes an ongoing test of the mind, body and spirit.
Why at age 30? Why not before? Why at all? These are questions without answers. Like everything important in my life, playing soccer careened against my intellect. In my 20's I was affected by the women's movement as it was heralded by Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. The movement, at least for some people, did not espouse athleticism. Women were more evolved than men. Sports were adolescent. Athleticism was something to be eliminated, not emulated. Women had more important things to do—like take on the world, and fix it. During the apex of this all-consuming search for personal and political liberation, my father was helping Seattle's first women's soccer teams get organized. That disgusted me.
But a short time later, during an evening of debauchery in 1974, soccer and I collided. I had been drinking beer for hours with friends in a raunchy Seattle tavern. We were waiting for my brother Roger, who was then a member of the city's professional soccer team, the Sounders of the North American Soccer League. It was Roger's birthday and he was late. "Where the hell you been?" I slurred to his girlfriend, Barbara, when they finally arrived.
She gave a scathing account of the team dinner they had just left. The adoration, food, drink and glory showered upon the young heroes had been an insult to her sense of feminist values and a good excuse to get drunk. Soon Barbara and I were sharing a vehement exchange about the ego needs of men in sports. How childish. How farcical. Such dangerous illusions in which to wrap one's identity. How we progressed from general insult of the male character to the grand announcement that we would start our own soccer team is a mystery. I can't believe that we actually followed up on that booze-inspired decision.
It wasn't easy. Learning your first sport when you're old enough to think about what you are doing is one of life's more perverse challenges. The mind believes it should be able to make the body do whatever it wants. Ha. It was at least three years before I stopped having paralyzing attacks of adolescent embarrassment about my clumsiness on the soccer field. Another three years before I began to experience the wisdom of the body. And at least another couple of years before I didn't care what color our team uniform would be for the season.
My current concern is how to educate the men I play with about the finer details of teamwork. As a left wing on my women's team, I enjoy an active relationship with both ball and players. On my coed team, which has six men and five women, I can more often be found gazing over the horizon in private reverie, waiting for a ball to loop my way. The guys just don't seem to get it.
I suppose I could throw myself into the tangle of legs and elbows in the middle of the field instead of playing my position, but I look forward to playing into my 60's. Proving my self-destructive prowess at age 42 won't get me there. I do get angry. But when you're a woman you don't punch the bastards out; they think you're whining.
Yet for all my frustration, soccer affords me my purest moments of liberation and reflection. Perhaps it's because I didn't start playing until I was 30. Perhaps it's because the sport was so damn hard, so unnatural and so humiliating. Anyway, if I had gotten my first hat trick at 14, I wouldn't have felt so privileged to get it at 41. Life doesn't get much sweeter than a hat trick at 41.
On that particular night I came to the field with a slight ambivalence. I am a playwright, and I had made plans to go to the theater that evening, but when I made that commitment I had forgotten I had a soccer game. Explaining to my friends why I couldn't attend the play was interesting, especially because the field and theatre were across the street from each other. The thought of my colleagues gazing over in bemusement at intermission was not pleasant. Maybe they wouldn't recognize me. It was a drizzly night, the lights were dim, and I look different in soccer clothes—a little chubby and uncamouflaged by the trappings of daily life. Besides, although I told them what I was doing, I hadn't said where I was doing it.
For more than 10 years I have played soccer on women's teams, men's teams, mixed teams, young teams, old teams, good teams, bad teams, teams with matching uniforms and teams that would rather lose than have matching uniforms. Only the sport remains the same. Bringing the ball under control and making a crisp pass to a teammate require both autonomy and dependence. In his 1945 book The Unquiet Grave: A World Cycle, Cyril Connolly writes, "I believe in two-faced truth, in the Either, the Or and the Holy Both." It's the only phrase I've ever memorized, and the soccer field is the only place I've ever truly realized it.
Control of a soccer ball is paradoxical. If we try to barricade the ball, it will just bounce away. By yielding to it, we can take control. In a game when the play is ripe with give and take, the ball becomes almost animate, moving with its own delicate grace. Only a soccer player can get in its way.
We try our best, even though we disagree about whether we should play to win or to play all the players. If we play to win—and win—who sits on the sidelines? If we play to play—and lose—who goes home sulking like a disappointed five-year-old at Christmas? It gets complicated. Some games are worth losing. Some aren't worth winning.
Even a well-played victory with no subs on the sideline inevitably draws complaints. Why can't she get to the ball a little faster? Why won't he pass to a woman? Why doesn't anyone want to play goalie? Who's baby-sitting the kids? Why is the referee blind?
Though the gripes are predictable, the game is as unpredictable as the weather in which it is played. When I scored my hat trick, the night was cold and rainy. My first goal was an instinctive, one-touch response to a beautifully passed ball. The other two I don't remember. What I do recall is the driving, wet air and the smell of salt water blowing up from Puget Sound; the theater crowd in the distance, huddled with coffee and cigarettes at intermission; and the feeling that life still holds surprises. I felt that, at 41, perhaps my life had just begun, and that the best things in life are not only free but also unexpected.
Janet Thomas's plays include "Newcomer" and "Ten Minutes for Twenty-Five Cents. "