Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Terror on the Pitch

The 2014 FIFA World Cup is sure to go down in the history books as one of the more memorable championships. Traditionally high-ranking teams, such as Spain, Italy, and England, eliminated early in the series. Psychopathic players suspended for biting. And Brazil losing in such an embarrassing semi-final defeat.

The match between Argentina and the Netherlands was impressive, one where I started with no true favourite but, in the second half, leaning towards the South-American team, and later screamed with delight at the superb goalkeeping in the shootout.

I'm glad that Argentina won, because as the game progressed I started thinking that it would be nice to watch the final match between a South-American team and a European team, rather than two teams from Europe.

Though, I'm now rooting for Germany.

I've always loved The Beautiful Game, ever since I started playing it, in high school. I was never good at the game, had never scored a goal. I was always placed in a defensive position because I was good at getting in the way, and in that regard I was effective at preventing an opposing player from getting a clear shot at my team's net.

When I had the possession of the ball, I never had it long: I would always pass it to one of my offensive teammates, who would run circles up the pitch, or I would try to run with the ball, and either kick it too hard, in which case I would send it too far away from me to keep in in control, or a better opponent would be able to get it away from me.

Sometimes, I played dirty. Once, when I was in possession of the ball, I saw a challenger racing toward me. I knew him, knew he was a better player, knew that he would have no difficulty getting his feet in close and taking the ball away from me.

Rather than let that happen, I did a nasty move. As he approached me, I kicked the ball as hard as I could, straight at his crotch. We didn't play with protective gear back them. The ball hit him hard in the groin, causing him to drop to his knees, in pain, his hands dropping instinctively to his genitals, too late to protect them.

But I didn't stop there.

The ball bounced straight back to me, but instead of continuing around him, I kicked the ball at him again, this time aiming for his head. The ball caught him squarely in the face, bringing him all the way to the ground.

I regained possession of the ball and ran around him, but not before the referee blasted his whistle and kicked me to the sidelines. I also garnered several laps around the school track as added punishment.

Running laps was a favoured penalty, and I ran my share of them. I would get called out for tripping, for grabbing. A couple of times, for elbowing opponents in the face.

Soccer had that effect on me. At any other time, I was a pussycat, not competitive. Not violent. But this game turned me into a terror on the pitch. Even amongst my friends.

The worst incident happened just weeks before school was wrapping up for the summer, just before we were to move into exams.

It happened in gym class, playing against classmates and friends. As usual, I was a defenseman, hanging back near my team's net.

One of my good friends, who was a born soccer player, who still plays in leagues to this day, was in control of the ball. He had already broken through the line of my team's offensive players and was heading towards my goalkeeper. Only I stood between him and an assured goal. And he was a much better player.

I knew he would have no trouble dancing around me if I challenged him. So I thought of a different strategy. Charge him. Go after him, and not the ball. Run as fast as I could and bowl him over, and thereby take the ball away from him.

Sure, the tactic might earn me more laps around the track, but gym class was almost over. At most, I would have to run one lap.

My friend saw me coming. He knew my history of dirty moves. He had only seconds to make a decision, and then I would be all over him. He must have seen one of his team players, or maybe he was just thinking of taking a wild shot. But he knew he had to get rid of the ball before we met.

It happened in an instant, so quickly that we both didn't have much time to react. I saw him wind up to pass the ball as I came upon him and decided I would kick the ball at the same time. It would come down to a matter of whose foot would make contact with the ball first.

Neither of us connected with the ball.

Instead, our legs met, unprotected shin on unprotected shin, followed by my body slamming into his. I still carried the momentum I had built up in my scheme to knock him over, and we collided with neither of us slowing.

As another player described it later, the collision sounded as though someone had taken a baseball bat and swung it as hard as possible against a brick wall, the wood splitting and the hollow knock of a brick. I felt the force of our bodies connecting, of the air being knocked from my lungs. I spun around, hit the ground and rolled several times, as though I were doing somersaults down a steep hill. When my body finally came to rest, I lay face down, prone on the pitch. Looking back at my friend, I could see him curled up into a ball, his arms hugging a leg.

I've broken his leg, I told myself. I'm in big trouble. I'm an idiot. I'm going to be running penalty laps for weeks.

I pushed myself up onto my hands and knees, used my right leg to lift myself, and took a step toward my friend. But when I stepped forward with my left leg, I tumbled over as though I didn't have a leg at all.

Surely, I told myself, I've given myself a shock, have lost my balance. Again I stood up, again I took a step forward, again I fell down.

On the third attempt, I stayed down.

Other players went to my friend's aid, helped him off the pitch. "Stop littering the field," our gym teacher yelled to me, "Get your ass up."

"I can't," I said. "I can't walk."

Disgusted, he asked two classmates to pick me up. When they did, I felt the pain in my left leg. The two heard me yelp, and they decided that they would cradle carry me off the pitch. I could see my friend, on the sidelines, now walking, though with a limp. Thankfully, I told myself, I hadn't broken his leg.

But by the time my helpers had reached the sideline with me, the bell rang, indicating the end of this class. I still couldn't put any weight on my left leg, so our teacher asked my classmates to carry me straight to the nurses station.

He felt my shin bone where I said the pain was the worse, but found nothing. "You probably bruised yourself, you big baby," my gym teacher said, "let this be a lesson for you."

By coincidence, I was scheduled to leave school after my gym class that day. My parents were to pick me up and take me to a doctor's checkup. From the nurses office, I could see them, waiting in the car at the front of the school. With my gym teacher ready to dismiss me, I asked my helpers, who were still with me, if they could carry me to the car. The pain in my leg was now becoming unbearable.

As they carried me through the foyer, we encountered my music teacher, who expressed genuine shock at seeing me cradled toward the door. "How's your embouchure?" he asked, looking at my face and jaw, making sure my mouth was fine, still able to play the trumpet. I laughed, but the pain was clearly visible in my face.

I felt every bump, every acceleration and braking, every corner on the drive to the doctor. At the doctor's office, a couple of assistants from a neighbouring clinic had to help me out of the car. As fortune would have it, my doctor was in a medical building with an x-ray machine and I was taken to it directly. My appointment would be spent with my doctor looking at the results.

My left tibia was snapped, clean through. The break wasn't straight across the bone: it worked its way across on a diagonal and was about three inches in length. Surprisingly, the separated bones hadn't shifted, so the tibia appeared normal from the outside. But it was absolutely broken.

The medical building had no facility for treating a broken bone, and so I had to be taken to a hospital. My doctor phoned the emergency room in advance, and I was able to be treated right away.

My gym teacher didn't need to punish me with laps around the track. Spending my summer in a cast that encased my entire left leg was punishment enough. My poor friend suffered no less a fate: though his bones didn't break, he was left with shin splints that trouble him still.

My last day of being a terror on the soccer pitch was the last day that I played soccer at all, save for practicing with my kids, when they took up the sport, or helping as a flagman during one of their games.

For me, I have given myself a permanent red card.

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