We’re nearly at the end of soccer season here: Saturdays spent camped on folding chairs, as twenty-two 10, 11 and 12 year olds race frantically for hours in pursuit of an inflated leather object. This passion will no doubt continue throughout their lives, but will soon be referred to as shoe shopping.
The first team Martha played for was in Torrance, Los Angeles; home of the Olympic gold medallist Shannon Box. The location was the only thing Martha’s team had in common with any sort of soccer excellence, mainly because of their age, and the all-inclusive philosophy of the organization, and the inhibiting nature of the uniforms. What it lacked in skill, however, it made up in entertainment value, not least watching the agonies of the volunteer parent coaches as all the skills that had been carefully rehearsed in practice disappear like mist once they hit the pitch.
The selection process was less than rigorous; players on each team were allocated at random, issued with a uniform and two unsuspecting parent coaches, and allowed to choose their own names. Martha’s team made the interesting choice of “The Pink Unicorns” in honor of their blush pink strip. They had an equally non-threatening banner, a Pink Unicorn jumping over a rainbow, and all the girls wore matching pink ribbon pom-pom hair elastics. In eight year old girl terms, they had already won the jackpot, and any further glory on the field would just be greedy. This was reflected in their play; although they played very well as a team, they proved completely incapable of the killer instinct that got the ball into the back of the net. The level of skill it took to miss quite that many shots was staggering, and had the coaches in near hysteria. Meanwhile, at the other end of the field, our numbers were being quietly decimated. Every time the opposing team managed to score, the goalie would sink to the floor in a flood of tears, and have to be led sobbing from the field. They would then be replaced with another team member, only for the whole process to be repeated over, and over again.
Here in San Francisco, things have moved up a notch. Martha is now three years older, and team soccer skills have moved beyond the “swarm’; 14 girls standing in a circle around the ball attempting to kick it until someone actually makes contact, then running en masse after it to repeat the whole process over again. Now there is evidence of some really good play. The people who run the youth soccer association are pretty savvy; they keep track of who are the stars from previous years and make sure they are divided up between the new teams. There is less sobbing, the teams all play in proper formations, and the girls have finally grown into the strip that is bought in one size, whether you are a first or and eighth grader.
But one thing has come to light – the refereeing. The right of the viewing public to criticize the referee’s decision on any and all calls is developing nicely. The LMYA motto “They play, We coach, You cheer” is frequently tested, with a highlight of any game being a parent or coach sending off.
To be fair, the refs have an unenviable task. Keeping the games running injury free and on time are difficult enough. They start every game by asserting their focus on safety, which involves the tapping of shin pads, the tucking in of shirts, and the removal of jewelry, which with 24 lavishly adorned girls on the teams can take a considerable time and rechecks. Injuries are minor, but are greeted by a swarm of concerned players around the victim, copious heartfelt apologies, and the ball left completely unattended in a far corner of the pitch, regardless of whether the whistle has blown. Last week the ref was forced to take a time out to explain that “unless my whistle blows, you keep playing”, when play had indeed stopped, for no discernible reason.
But their decisions reflect the age and skill level of the players, and as such, are infuriating to some of the more ambitious parents. The offside rule is a open for interpretation, the edges of the field are sometimes a little wobbly, and I have yet to see a FIFA world cup game where the ref allowed a second try at a throw in. But it’ s the spirit of the decisions that I love, with the referees applying the philosophy of “what would the Dalai Lama do?” to every call. The sight of the game being stopped for a quick instructional on just how to keep your feet on the floor for the throw in gladdens my heart. It may mean that the scoreboard can be called into question, and that those parents wanting to take it seriously are left frustrated. But the calls keep the play moving, the players motivated, and give a little leeway when the less confident players finally get their foot to the ball. It’s their lesson for life; it’s not the winning or the losing that counts, it’s how they play they game. And for now, they have it right – it’s all much more fun when we get to play it together.