Relay: For the Love of the Game

One common purpose — to play soccer.

   When workers get off the job, one might think that they would kick back and relax after a hard day’s labor. That they would at least go home, take a shower, and maybe collapse into bed. But on weekend evenings, as soon as work is out at around 5 or 6, Latin American men of various nationalities head to the barren fields and dense woods of the community center at Stephen Hand’s Path in East Hampton.
    There, they park their cars and large pickup trucks along the long parking lot, which stretches the distance of both of the center’s two soccer fields. The fields are empty and utterly deserted for most of the week, but come weekends, they spring to life as 20, 30, or more people come together with one common purpose — to play soccer.
    Players wait around in their cars, either on their phones or taking a quick nap as they await others. Cars will begin to trickle in, and they park in the many empty spaces along the field. As soon as enough vehicles accumulate, some ambitious and venturesome folk will step out of their cars, soccer cleats in hand, and begin to call out to familiar friends and faces. Thus, a whole process of mobilization begins.
    Doors open, shouts are heard, cleats are laced up. A ball is thrown onto the field, and several of the first players step out to follow it. They begin to pass the ball around in a large circle; this is the official sign that a game will be starting shortly.
    Sometimes there are no games. I’ve driven down to the fields several times on a Saturday or Sunday evening only to find one or two lone cars parked in the parking lot, a family having a small cookout, or a few kids running around. But when there are games, the whole area seems to be bustling with life, and even some spectators gather.
    As the ball gets passed around, this is where I come in. All summer, in each game, I’ve consistently been the only non-Latin American in the game, besides my younger brother. Many of the people who play can’t speak English, and if they do they can speak only a few words. My brother and I do our best to understand and communicate. Together, we approach the group and offer up our orange ball to use in the game, indicating that we want in. We’re greeted with welcoming beckons and warm smiles as we join the passing circle, which by this time has grown.
    When the head count surpasses about 15, people begin pairing off with someone of their equal skill level, and one person goes to one side, one goes to the other. Teams have been formed. Someone with the ball will look around, a quick glance to remember who his teammates are, before kicking it off to start the game.
    As soon as the game starts, the volume begins to increase. Shouts are heard to pass the ball to the wing, make a tackle, take a shot on goal. Latecomers run to join the game. As soon as one team scores the opening goal, the opposing players scowl at the ground as they take their shirts off to form the skins team. So begins a full two or three-hour game of pickup soccer.
    Nicknames are yelled out as people call for passes, including Gordo, the large goalkeeper who makes acrobatic saves; Colombia, a Colombian man built like a tank; Chicharito, a big center-forward who always wears the jersey of his favorite Mexican international player, Chicharito Hernandez.
    Similarly, my brother has earned the nickname Neymar, for the jersey with the Brazilian player’s name on it he wore to his first pickup game. There’s a little kid, under 12 years old, who plays in almost every game and has earned the nickname Messi, after the Argentinean star, for his amazing skills and his ability to compete with a much older crowd. There’s even an older man, almost 60 years old and affectionately nicknamed Papi, who plays from time to time.
    The Latin Americans’ style of play is quick, full of flair, and fun. They show off skill moves on offense, but also make clever interceptions on defense. They call fouls on themselves for a handball, or for a tackle that was a bit too rough. Players offer hands to help others off the ground. Goals are celebrated with high fives or mock celebrations. It’s all fun and lighthearted competition, and every single person involved thoroughly enjoys himself.
    The Latin Americans who play don’t all know one another. However, they speak as if they are all old friends, because they all have something in common. They are brought together by their passion for soccer. That’s why, when they finish a long day of hard work, the first thing they do is rush to get in on one of these pickup games, no matter how exhausting they are (it’s hard to walk after almost three hours of soccer). It’s also why they are so welcoming to others — like my brother and me.
    So, when I find myself out there on those fields, surrounded by people who don’t speak English but whom I greatly admire, I realize that we are all on the same field out of love for the game. These unique pickup games organized by Latin Americans serve as an example of a passion bringing people together and as a universal language that everyone can communicate with.

   Sergei Klebnikov is an intern at The Star this summer.