Some years ago, when I was fresh out of college and living in Chicago, I was asked to play in a men’s soccer league on the north side of the city. The college friend who invited me was a great guy and a terrific soccer player, and I knew hardly a soul in the city, and I was young and strong and eager to run, so I said yes, and he said great, we have two games every Saturday all summer, and they are generally tournament games, so if we win both on Saturday, we play one or two on Sunday, and occasionally three on Sunday, if the bracket is really crowded, so get your beauty rest, which in your case is desperately needed, and meet us Saturday morning at the field. Just bring your cleats.
So there I was the next Saturday, early so I could stretch properly, and away across the grass I could see a knot of much older men stretching and drinking coffee and actually, no kidding, smoking cigarettes. To my amazement these were my new teammates, who stared at me blankly until my friend explained that I was the new defenseman, and we had played together in college, and I could be trusted not to let in goals. Then he switched into a language I did not know, and said something that made all the older men laugh and come over and shake my hand and offer me coffee. One man, who seemed to be about 50, offered me a cigarette, but I declined politely, and we wandered out on to the field to kick balls back and forth desultorily to test the grass; it is subtle but crucial, in a soccer game, to understand the surface, and the cast of the grass, and the general trend of the field—I have played on fields of every conceivable slope and pitch and drainage, hard fields and soft fields and fields with potholes, fields of dust, fields covered with plastic, fields frozen hard as stone, fields awash with puddles, even a field with a killdeer nest once, which I remember vividly for the way the parent birds defended their territory with ferocious courage.
When the game started, my friend was lined up next to me on defense and I asked him what he had said to the older men and he said, eínai énas fto̱chós podosfairistí̱s allá eínai polý grí̱gori̱—he is a poor soccer player but he is very fast—and we laughed, and this was when he told me that most of the players on both teams were Greek, and most of them had played professionally at some level in Europe, and even though they looked geriatric they were amazing players, and his sincere advice to me was not to get lost in gawking at their incredible skill but to keep a sharp eye on the ball, because these guys were devious geniuses at fakes and jukes and dekes, and also they were unapologetically rough, and they would do anything whatsoever for a goal, including tripping, holding, cursing, casting aspersions on your family, insulting your appearance, questioning your manhood, spitting, elbowing, and using you like a young ladder to climb toward a ball that seemed headable into the goal. Keep your temper, watch the ball, and deck anyone who comes too close, that’s about it, said my friend, smiling, and that is what we did every Saturday and most Sundays the rest of that summer in Chicago. It was, I confess, a constant struggle for me not to gape at the stunning quality of play in front of me from both teams, but my friend and I, as the last line of defense, allowed very few goals, as I remember, and at the end of the year we finished second in the league. After the title game, which we lost in overtime, we gathered under the oak trees at one end of the field and drank ouzo with our teammates and their wives and children. At the very end, just before we shook hands and broke up for the winter, the man who had offered me a cigarette said, den í̱tan tóso kakí̱ kathólou , kathólou. On the way home my friend translated that for me: you were not so bad at all, not at all, which still, all these years later, seems like delicious praise to me.
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