Throughout my stay in Rio I found that there was rarely a day I did not see or hear a futbol being kicked somewhere. All too often I could hear players yelling from a nearby club where balls bounced heavily on a concrete wall next to our bedroom.
Occasionally on the street I would run across a ball that had been kicked over a fence from a nearby sandlot. Wearing sandals I took my time kicking it back. At 40 Celsius I was contented to retrieve balls. Sometimes a ball found its way through a crowd at Ipanema beach, arriving at my feet, enticing the soccer player within to show his stuff. “Come on, man.” Instead I put a foot to the ball and made a simple pass to a dozen or more young people who had a lifetime of show-stopping heroics ahead of them.
Wayward soccer balls have always had a way of finding me, then urging me to come back to the sport if only for a moment of reflected glory. I had kicked makeshift balls made of rubber and clothing strung together, playing on a makeshift field near a village on the way to Mt. Everest in Nepal. Once I found a game in Guatemala City when a team needed a player to even a side. In Mexico at high elevation I played a portion of a game before the altitude got to me and they made me a referee for the rest of the game. In England I played games on a village road well into the night with two brothers keen to have someone to play with. As a youth in Colorado, decades before soccer became popular, I kicked a ball against walls and fences as a way of seeking equanimity in a turbulent world of my own making.
One night while walking along a beach in Cabraglia in the state of Bahai, I came across a game being played on a worn tennis court. The players wore old tennis shoes and some played barefoot, yet their skills were well advanced at a tender age. Then extraordinarily an errant ball flew into the air and bounced well out of bounds and came to a stop on the sand, confronting me. Giant waves from the Atlantic crashed not a few meters away in the last light of day. This particular ball dared me to take it ---skillfully. The young men were watching. I knew that local custom demands that when a ball arrives it is imperative to control it with style. Wearing sandals I flipped the ball on my right foot. Then I put the ball to my left foot and guided the ball back along the pavement, bringing it back to the eager players anxious to get on with their game.
I coveted the moments. This was no ordinary ball. It was the sum of all those feet that had touched it over its time. I passed on my inside left foot to their coach standing on the sideline 20 meters away. He nodded as he guided the ball effortlessly from his foot, up his leg as if it were on a string, bounced it on his knee and in mid-air, shot it flying back to the young men. The show was as much for me as for the players.
With a respectful glint in our eyes two old warriors shared a touch of Brazilian magic with the future, the present and the past.
Photo by Delma Godoy
Along a beach in Cabraglia