Tonight there is an alumni soccer game going on Voris Field, the home of the Taft High Tigers. Since I’m not quite the spry young athlete I once was, I decided to start practicing a couple weeks ago. I had planned on running every day, doing foot drills every other day, and trying to play in a few pick-up games whenever I could. As it turned out, I ran like once and kicked a ball around twice… Not two separate days; two times in one day.
During the self-enforced practice, though, I met a guy named Muhammed from Saudi Arabia. We had both been waiting for the lacrosse camp to clear the turf fields at U of O and for all we could tell, we were going to be the only ones playing soccer that night. So we took some shots at each other and then chatted for a bit. He asked if I played much and I told him that I normally play football or baseball when I’m at the turf fields and then I asked him if he played much. He told me that in Saudi Arabia, everyone plays soccer. Some play basketball, he admitted, but no one played anything else. Soccer and basketball.
In high school, like so many teenagers, I wanted to play football. I wanted to be a running back scoring countless touchdowns every game and have cute girls giving me their phone numbers. Instead, I stuck with soccer. Okay, it wasn’t so much me deciding to stick with soccer as it was my grandpa telling me he was never allowing me to play football, but even so, I kept playing “kick and chase.” I enjoyed it all the years I played, but even so, I wanted to play football.
Yet if I had done that, if I had dropped soccer altogether and pursued football (technically “American football”; “football” means “soccer” in most parts of the world), I wouldn’t have met Muhammed. I wouldn’t have had that unique opportunity to connect with someone outside my American lens – outside my realm of familiarity. Because it wasn’t football, baseball, or basketball (the three main sports in America) that enabled us to meet Muhammed. It was soccer.
It was a similar experience I had when I worked the Olympic Trials for Track & Field last summer; encountering different people, cultures, and ways of living than what I’m familiar with. Time after time I was at a loss when they told me what event their relative or friend was competing in or how far they could throw a javelin or what meters were. I couldn’t say much about my previous experience because there wasn’t any. But when I played soccer with Muhammed, we got to relate to one another for no other reason except soccer.
I don’t know what his beliefs are or if he’s politically minded or not. But I know that he and I have something in common because I played soccer in high school. This isn’t a post knocking football, baseball, basketball or any other prominent sport in the United States; it’s a post about connecting with someone beyond your own cultural understanding. Playing soccer – or at least learning about the game – has gone a long way in helping me step outside my comfort zones.
At my church, Emmaus Life, we’ve talked a lot about loving and caring for people with no strings attached; not having them become members of our church or submitting to our belief statements or signing off on the doctrines of our denomination or whatever. The life of Jesus – the real life that two disciples encountered on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) – goes beyond doctrines, belief statements, denominations, religious affiliations, political interests, or national identity. It goes beyond the mentality that one sport is better than another and instead invites newbies to play whatever game is being played, much like Muhammed inviting me to take shots at him while he played goalie.
Who knows if I ever see Muhammed again. What I do know, though, is that I am glad I played soccer in high school and that I need to keep playing this game as long as I can because it is a unique way of connecting with other people. I’ll still play football, basketball, baseball, golf, or really any game that involves scoring points. But with soccer comes a connecting platform to countless others. Playing it enables insight into the lives of others.
If you get the chance, kick a ball around and see what kind of people you meet. You might be surprised.
(And yes I’m excited about living in Portland and attending Timbers games)