Theory: Soccer as Virtual Reality

Tomorrow sees the kickoff of the 19th FIFA World Cup, which, in a way, is a homecoming.

I am at home now, on this field. Belly-down on green shag carpeting, the smell of clean, perfectly clean dirt – cleaner than any kitchen cleanser. The light quiet. Muted hustling of feet. How is this not my home?

I am a soccer player. Meaning?

It’s strange the way identities pull themselves together and, to a degree, how little we are consulted in that decision process. We can fake interests all we like, try on new hats, explore new options in the form of recreation and career and calling, but the things that truly come to denote our lives, those things come in search of us. We can accept them graciously, as the gifts they are, or we can deny them.

Do we become what we love? What our body loves?

My body loves soccer. On the field, I am completely complete. It’s always been this way.

As children, we played for different reasons. Hobby, friends, parents who needed free time, orange slices, just you know, something to do. Others were not there for those reasons. We were there because we were supposed to be. Tiny thighs already bulk with the markings of a pro.

Thighs like jodhpurs at 5, thighs that you will hate for that, but that will give you speed like a missile and allow you to chase anyone on the field and reclaim possession of the ball. Calves melty with muscle. It’s as if your legs marked you for sport before your mind could decide if you even liked it. You will be good at this. You will be great.

You loved it. You loved everything about it. You were a complete natural. You loved the ripe smell of the goalbox, the kiss of the ball on the curve of your foot, the svelte leather uppers of your Copa Mundials, the chase of the center fullback locked on a right wing, the tackle, the snap of the ball as it leaves your foot, the complete exhaustion, the impasto Van Gogh swirls of green and mud.

And how it is not vulgar to compare it to art. Not at all. The thinking and not thinking. The relief in letting your body be the brain for awhile. This happens in art as well, losing yourself in a painting, your hand making all the decisions. Kicking, pacing, tracking, intercepting. Breathing deep compensatory breaths. Forfeiting master control for 90 minutes. Reacting. Zoning out, but maybe being more zoned in than you ever have before as a human being.

If you want to excel, you have to sell your body to soccer. I have two screws in my ankle right now that will attest. And an arthritic knee. Most days now I swim to stay in shape. It’s likely I’ll need multiple joint replacements in the golden age. Why harp the glories of something so destructive?

Have you seen it? Have you had the distinct pleasure of playing with a great team and worthy opponents? There is nothing else like it.

It’s a beautiful game. The most beautiful in the world. Speed, geometry, agility, finesse. As methodical as chess. As loose as the surf. You play with your whole body. The primal rush of a sprint. We were hunters once after all. We were quiet. We caught our sustenance. Now we catch a ball. It feels similarly glorious, I imagine. Trapping and holding that ball. Competing for it.

That hollow globe which one day, after a sweaty Kansas night practice, I seem to control as if by magnetism. I was owed this, and now it’s here. It arrived. I can put the ball anywhere I want with sniper precision. The Jedi Mind Trick is real and it has come in this form. I can call the ball back to me as well, like a pet. And when I do call it back it feels alive trapped against my chest, my thigh, my foot. Remember that? And when you noticed for the first time that you were juggling, completely involuntarily?

Your body knew how. It knew a language you didn't. And boy, it was fluent.

I don't play too much anymore. I want to save my ankle. I want to be able to teach the game to my kids. But I can watch. I'll be watching this month.

It’s painful in ways to be a spectator in a sport you used to own. But everything eventually comes back, in some sweeping outpouring of love or God or karma or fate or whatever it is you believe in. I can watch the game, and I can literally feel the game. Feel what it’s like to make that slide tackle. Feel what it’s like to score off that diving header. It’s a little bit more than vicarious living. It's like virtual reality. Or it is virtual reality. (The next wave, right Jaron?) I know it is. I've got that sweeper intuition.


Alex and Katie said...

You're amazing.

Our Little Online Corner said...

I read this forever ago, and I was revisiting your blog tonight and thought I had already commented. But I hadn't.

My mom often speaks this way about dancing. It almost physical hurts her to watch an amazing performace. I know she misses it, I can see the ache in her face. I wish I could help her. At least she can dance again eventually, right? I mean, resurrection and all?