Sorry I haven’t blogged. During my hiatus, the season continued and ended. This post will fill you in until the final tournament, if you’re interested.
After the tie documented in the last post, the boys steamrolled through the remainder of the regular season. One game, on a 6-against-6 field, they split into two teams, played four games against the host school’s two teams, and won something like 50-10 on aggregate – a retreat-to-the-hills route.
We hosted a school on our 6-against-6 field a few weeks later, played two full games, and put on a clinic: in both games, we scored 12-plus goals, our self-imposed limit, possessed like Spain, and, for most of the second halves, let defenders play offense. Our motto: one goal for every forward, midfielder, and defender. Sadly, a lanky junior defenseman named Nicky failed to score. The goal posts and their acrobatic keeper stopped most of his shots, but the only denial of importance to his teammates was the ball he skied over the catch net into the weeds. Needless to say, obnoxious imitations ensued.
On that bright day, technically spring, at heart summer, for one moment we glimpsed – just glimpsed, for the moment, though remarkable, ended just the same as any moment – true beauty in a goal by our attacking midfielder, Warren. When Koreans are very impressed by something, they let out a gasp with a very particular sound. It sounds like Wow without the last w: Uwaaaaa. Every move Warren made was followed by one of these gasps. “Back to the goal at half field, Warren turns and deceives the defender” – Uwaa. “Warren shuffles past one defender, two, three” - Uwaaa, Uwaaaaa, Uwaaaaaaaaa. The gasps just kept getting bigger. “One more defender to go” – UWAAAAAA – “now just the goalkeeper – Warren winds up, the goalie dives” – UWAAAAAAAAAAAAA! For a minute after the goal, on that tiny field in Korean farm country, everyone was abuzz. The solo effort, in which Warren had dribbled by every single player on their team, had been punctuated by the cheekiest of finishes. The goalie flattened himself to block a low shot, Warren wound up to shoot low…but then scooped the ball over the goalie, who could only watch it rainbow in slow motion past his goal line. At the team banquet weeks later, before declaring Warren the winner of the “Most Talented Player Award,” I would refer to it as a goal from heaven.
During the great meanwhile, the many weeks without games like those, organized practices mostly went out the window. I arrived to the field one Monday, for example, to find a referee-supervised game, half the boys from my team, the other half from our school’s basketball team. Some small boy I knew, spying the bag of soccer balls slung over my shoulder, and my bewildered face, popped out from behind a bush.
“It’s Champions League, Coach – our school’s week-long, school-wide, principal-approved tournament,” he said, and disappeared back to his hiding place. Satisfied by his explanation and impressed by his use of compound words, I went home.
And several Fridays during the season, I arrived to the opposite: an empty field, but for a few stragglers fooling around with a ball and wearing jeans. I immediately made for the aforementioned bush and beckoned for my well-informed friend.
“Everyone went home to take the TOEFL exam, Coach. It only happens a few times a year.” After the first month of the season, my attempts to battle what I thought of as an entire culture stopped.
Very differently, the girls players – few of whom, I’ll mention once again, played soccer before this year – attended practices zealously, even though we mostly did drills that were never more than basic: pass with the inside of your foot, stay in front of the ball when you trap, head the ball with the part of your noggin just above your eyes. Had boys been made to practice these sorts of elementary skills, even boys not yet masters of them, the air would have been thick with infuriating bellyaching. When I had the boys team do a partner passing drill one practice – one boy passes to a boy who is backpedaling, the backpedaling boy simply stops the ball so his partner can run forward and pass it again – soon several of the backpedaling boys were spinning in a circle following every ball they trapped: their goal had become not to trap the ball perfectly a dozen times, but to make sure I knew that trapping perfectly a dozen times was easy for them. They didn’t care that they would never trap and spin in a soccer game: they cared about showing me they were better than their peers.
But the girls, during simple drills, concentrated like they were disarming bombs, perhaps because the consequences of mistakes to them seemed just as disastrous. The two best players on the team, seniors named Geraldine and Chloe, cared deeply about their final season. They inherited automatic respect as the two eunnies (the word Korean girls call girls who are older than them, literally translated older sister), but didn’t need it: unlike the skinny shopping legs of most Korean girls, theirs were thick with muscles from afternoons spent playing this sport and others. They spent drills working one-on-one with girls who needed remedial help and soon many girls were remaining at the field after practice, doing the same drills we’d done that day again. These girls really wanted to improve. But not long after the whole team was remaining after practice and not long after that I realized their presence on the field was being mandated by Geraldine and Chloe.
One game, we tied a team we should have beat and, changing on the bus during the boys game that followed, I learned later, the two girls reamed their teammates like drill sergeants ream maggot boot campers. The third and fourth best players, two defenders who had been playing on the team for several years, were considering quitting.
In the beginning of the season, there hadn’t been enough girls to field a team. Several girls – Geraldine’s and Chloe’s senior classmates, a few middle schoolers – had joined.
“I didn’t want the girls soccer team to die,” Diana, the senior who would play goalie, told me when I had asked her at the beginning of the season what made her decide to join.
When one of the girls considering quitting told me about the bus incident, I reminded Geraldine and Chloe of what girls like Diana had done for them. They haven’t been playing their whole life like you, so they don’t love soccer like you. If they screw up, they’re not trying to screw up. They’re trying their best. Show them you appreciate their best. Stuff like that.
The talk came too late. The season went on, Geraldine and Chloe, other than once or twice, were contagiously encouraging, but one of the girls really did quit. I’ve theorized that other reasons at least contributed to her decision, but I have no evidence. I felt sad. An infectious disease was contained, but not before a life was lost.
Suddenly, calendar pages done flying upward, it was the last week of May, and our bus dropped me and the boys team off at a field in Seoul, Namsan Tower thrust dramatically skyward in backdrop: the home field of the only team our boys had failed to defeat.
I realized something recently which I’m ashamed of but which is true: I wanted to win the most important games I coached this season more than the most important games in which I’d ever played.
And this was one of those games. I invented narratives, occasionally altered for dramatic effect, to convince myself that the only just result would be a victory for our team. Among them were these:
1) Their players were big, white Americans from a big, rich school in Seoul. Our players were not-big Koreans from the only school for miles in Hickory, South Korea. (True)
2) Their players sprinted all 90 minutes, advanced the ball via long aerial passes, and dominated 50-50 balls, the Germany of South Korean high school soccer, machines. Our players were both Spain and Brazil, both tiki taka and dribble-past-a-defender-and-let-him-catch-up-so-you-can-dribble-past-him-again. (Very True)
3) In our first match, they played extremely dirty – shoving, swearing, and once attempting and nearly accomplishing murder. After Warren made one too many joyful runs through their defense, their stone-faced, racist coach sikked his defensive midfielder. The thug lunged cleats-first into Warren’s knee, cleanly decapitating the top of the leg from the bottom, but for a string of tendon. As Warren was stretchered away – women weeping, their coach turning around to pump a lowered fist toward his player’s blood-thirsty, Klan member parents, our players fighting to reach the assailant or searching for blunt objects to kill him with – he whispered something: “Jasin-ui kkongcho leul geod-eocha.” Kick their butts, according to Google Translate. (If you don’t think this is true, I will fight you.)
That game, we only managed to tie them. But this game, Warren’s nearly-decapitated knee back at full strength after two months of rehab and no steroids, we did jasin-ui kkongcho leul geod-eocha. 2-1. We embarrassed them in the first half, passing our way to a two goal lead and then, in the second half when their desperate push to the finish came, they got one goal – but that was it. The last five minutes of the game we possessed on their half.
The girls had had a game that day too, against another team at another place, so the athletic director had gone and coached and they had won by more than five goals. We met them at one of Seoul’s millions of downtown areas to eat. I went to Taco Bell and scarfed down a Grilled Stuffed Burrito, our conference tournament not for another week, our teams champions of the world for the rest of the night.