Evenings, as the sun begins to drop, the turf field at the corner of St. Francis and Alta Vista fills with soccer players.
You can see them as you drive past, on your way home from Trader Joe’s: a motley scattering of shirtless men, shouting, waving their arms, chasing a lopsided ball for all they’ve got. To the casual observer, or to those accustomed to highly-positioned games like baseball or football, it seems more chaos than sport.
But there’s a method to their madness. And anyone with a bit of skill and an adventurous spirit is welcome to join. It can be a bit uncomfortable at first, I admit, but if you keep the following tips in mind, you should get along just fine:
Just do it.
When I began playing pick-up, I was a gangly, braces-faced white boy, with $90 Adidas cleats and a nickel of talent.
Back then, the games formed Tuesday and Thursday evenings at Patrick Smith Park off East Alameda. Within minutes of being beckoned onto the field, I discovered that the orange-slice-at-halftime game I’d been playing since I was 7 had nothing to do with soccer.
The ball, molded from the world’s hardest plastic, transformed into a dangerous projectile that I prayed would not come in my direction, and the men used their whole bodies—elbows, hips, butts, knuckles—to move me out of the way as they pursued it, barking in Spanish. Terrified, I gave away the few balls that landed at my feet and was soon relegated to goalie, but over the course of that summer (and the ensuing 20 years) I learned what it meant to take a 30-yard cross on the chest, to scrap, to shoot with power, to slide tackle—to play, as they say, with “cojones.”
Leave the xenophobia at home. (And learn some spanish, buey!) If you’re not comfortable interacting with folks from other countries, you’d best pick another sport.
Pick-up soccer in Santa Fe is dominated by people who were born everywhere but here. Players from the southern part of our continent—tricksters like Canaca from Honduras and Marcos, the technically-perfect Salvadoreno—probably make up 75 percent of most games, but there are a cast of regulars hailing from across the globe: Yoram, the magical Israeli who, like Merlyn, seems to get younger each year; a hard-working Paraguayo named Tony; the unstoppable Tunisian, Rashid; a British Adam; a Ukrainian goal-machine called Roman; Stuart, a superb, blue-collar goalkeeper from the icy plains of Wisconsin; and a striker I only know as “el Uruguayo,” who plays with the Machiavellian efficiency of a good Banana Republic dictator.
The lingua franca is Spanish, and it pays to pick up a few phrases early on, such as “¿Sí van a jugar?” (“Are they ever going to start the game?”) and “¿Vas conmigo?” (Are you on my team?). “¡Aguas!” (literally: “waters”) is somehow slang for “look out!” “Buey,” pronounced “way,” literally means “ox,” but is slang for “dude” or “man” and should not be taken as an insult unless you hear something about “tu madre” in connection.