If you've ever watched the World Cup or any other soccer tournament, you know how cool soccer is. People jump ten feet in the air in half backflips to slam the ball into the goal, and other cool stuff like that. Playing soccer with kids in Argentina was cool because it was like watching the World Cup, except terrifying because I was actually there on the field.
When I say it was like the World Cup, I mean that these kids knew how to play soccer. I wasn't expecting it. I had called up Chen, an exchange student from China, to ask him if he wanted to do anything that afternoon. He invited me to play soccer with his classmates.
When the game started my jaw dropped. It was like watching Criss Angel. I kept asking myself "how did they do that?" The ball was moving 50mph, but somehow three people could coordinate a series of flawless passes that put the ball in the goal. What?
And the ball was harder than a cinderblock. It actually hurt your foot when you kicked it. This just increased my amazement.
So at any rate, when the game started these kids started playing like the guys on TV. I spent most of my time running to the opposite end of the field in attempt to keep maximum distance from the ball. One reason was that I'm so bad at soccer that if I tried to kick the ball I'd end up helping the other team. The other reason what that I was scared for my life.
And with reason. Within two minutes of the game, the injuries started coming with a vengeance. Soccer is a dance with death.
One kid was pegged in the back in the lull after scoring a goal. He was taken totally unaware and wound up limping the rest of the game. Another kids was pegged in the leg. The hit to the leg hurt me to watch - the impact looked like it could have impaled. I mean, I was envisioning a soccerball-sized cylindrical gap right through his thigh. The victim lifted up his shorts, the ball had scraped away the skin to reveal the bright red flesh underneath. What amazed me was that, after chanting "hijo de puta" a few times, he simply continued playing. Later in the game, he would fall down and hurl all his weight on the same leg. That made him sit out for a few minutes.
I also witnessed some faceplants. It's a simple mechanism: When there are two players and only one soccer ball in the air, one player escapes with the ball, and the other digs his face into the ground. When only one player makes a jump for a flying ball, you can expect a different injury: the backplant. One kid fell to the ground with a nasty thud and had the wind totally knocked out of him. We're not talking about nice soft grass - we're talking about hard, brown, 100% La Rioja Dirt. Yet after a second he got up and continued playing as if nothing had happened.
As fate would have it I took a hit to the face, square on the left cheekbone. The ball (filled with iron instead of air?) Whizzed towards me much faster than a North American could possibly react. And, well, I'd love to have this be the climax of the story, in which I loose consciousness, wake up to be surrounded by the faces of my peers with blood gushing out my nose, have to be carried on the shoulders of the others to my terrified host mother, and then somehow turn the near-fatal injury into a lifechanging experience.
But unfortunately the ball didn't hit me that hard. My face stung pretty bad for a few minutes, and we continued playing as normal. The injuries continued as normal as well. Two other kids (at least) took direct hits to the face, with this ball that could have been used for shot put.
Needless to say, next time I'll ask Chen if we can play basketball.
For so long I was baffled at how young people in La Rioja can do nothing for such a long time. They don't care about school, they don't work or desire to find a job, on Saturdays they're not short on time because of band practice or homework... and they never seek an activity to kill the time. It's like a super-human laziness that I couldn't achieve if I tried. What do they do? What is their passion?
But as soon as they're on a soccer field I realized, they come alive. There is a passion as strong as I've ever seen, if not stronger. When the ball comes towards them, the game is the only thing that exists. A long-dormant force is suddenly unleashed. All their soul becomes dedicated to the soccer ball; all resources - brute force, speed, and intelligence - are focused on two posts and a net. And it's not just one enthusiastic player, but the whole team. There's a whole energy Network between players, and the bond between teammates is profound.
One skinny kid, Franco, was particularly passionate. Every time he came near me he was out of breath, but never stopped sprinting. Injuries meant nothing to him, of course. He was so engaged with the game as to be detatched from the real world. If the sun exploded me might not have noticed. If I have a strange passion for analyzing linguistic patterns or going on obsessional ten-mile runs, Franco has a strange passion for fútbol.
My energy on the soccer field was bit different. To the others, the soccer ball represented a sphere of energy that charged them more and more as it approached. To me, the ball was a small round missile that might detonate if I got too close. My team was fighting to the death for the ball; I was fleeing the ball for my life.
But the point is, now I can understand better the kids that seem to do nothing. It's clear to me. With that much energy invested in the game, once you're off the field what is there?