Pickup game

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The email from my youngest daughter's soccer coach said practice this week would start a bit earlier and "go until dark." I wasn't sure how dark dark should be, but when I arrived, I had to look hard at the girls running up and down the field to find mine. Formal practice had ended, so the girls had divided themselves into teams and switched out a regular ball for one that glowed in the dark. Their ponytails were snarly and their cheeks pink from the cold, but no one wanted to stop. To them, it didn't matter that there was dinner waiting or homework to be finished. They just wanted to play. And so it goes.

It's these informal pickup games that my youngest loves best. At recess, after school, after practice, and between "real" games. All they need is a goal, a ball, and a few children. Age, gender, ability - none of that matters. They're happy when a parent or teacher joins in. Shoes (and shirts for the boys) are optional. I'm in love with this age, with these pickup games, with their snarly ponytails. I know that too soon the fields will freeze, the snow will fall, and these 8-year-olds will be 11- and 14- and 16-year-olds. I'd like to think they might still play this way, that it won't end.

In Brazil, home to next year's World Cup, it never ends. In an article from last Sunday's New York Times: "In Brazil, the ball is always moving. It moves on grass and on sand, on concrete and on cobblestones. Sometimes, during the rainy season, it even moves on water." There's the dream of fame and fortune, of course. According to the article, Brazil is annually among the nations exporting the most players to foreign professional leagues. But mostly, pickup soccer in Brazil is about escape, and about joy. It doesn't matter if the game is played on a strip of grass between highways, on a beach, in a cage, or in a parking garage. "This game ... this is where you go to be yourself," one boy said. True in Brazil, and true on a field behind an elementary school just down the street.

Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times


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