The Heart of Football

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens Football Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here.

As far as one can get from the gilded palaces of Europe’s elite football clubs, where matches are played in front of scores of thousands of fans and broadcast live to televisions on every continent, is where now find myself: Bali, on a beach at low-tide in dusk’s gloom, where I’ve happened upon an adolescent boy juggling a tattered, soggy football.

After casting a “Please may I?” look to my girlfriend/traveling companion and getting a long-suffering sigh and nod of assent by way of return, the lad and I are soon putting on a twilight display of football gone horribly, irredeemably wrong, and make no mistake, we’re having the time of our lives.

Poverty on Bali is, by western standards, almost total. Here, my American dollar makes me something of a prince by measure of wealth, here the locals refer to me honorifically as “Boss”, and here the circumstances of my privileged Western life stand me across a nearly un-crossable cultural chasm from the Balinese natives. Nearly, for of course there is football, more than a sport, but a passion, and one of the few rickety bridges that connect first- and third-world peoples.

Bali attracts tourists from across the globe, and separating these tourists from their Rupiah is here a serious business, even something of an art. It’s notable, then, that about half the stores in Bali’s most tourist-heavy destinations fill their valuable retail space with football shirts, the names of Lampard and Beckham and Viduka (Bali is to the Aussies what the Caribbean is to Americans) visible from floor to ceiling, in shop after shop, along street after street.

The kits are, of course, knock-offs of unabashedly poor quality, but can be had for south of 5 Euros if you’re at all skilled at haggling, and in a country where everything from Chanel bags to Rolex watches are mimicked en masse, clinging to notions of the incontrovertibility of trademarks seems a fool’s philosophy. Participate in the bazaar.

Football provides instant fodder for communication along Bali’s streets: I pay for surfing lessons from a Javanese kid named Runi, and we share a laugh at his famous (-ly pronounced) name. A shop-keep inviting me to divest him of some of his inventory tells me I bear the look of Ronaldo, another notes my Argentina shirt and chats me up on the exploits of young Messi and weighs in on the speculation of his being “the next Maradona”, and who then proves he’s no poseur by then throwing the names of Kily Gonzalez, Sorin, Ayala, Crespo, and other less celebrated Argentines at me. I meet a Catalan couple in one shop having difficulty haggling over a watch for lack of facility with English (English and Japanese are widely spoken in tourist areas, and are something of the lingua franca of the isle’s tourism industry), and while giving a game but ultimately facile stab at playing translator for them, I chat them up on how they expect Henry to fit into the side, and whether they expect Dinho and Eto’o to long remain.

Everywhere I go, football provides me an “in”…it is as relevant on this tiny island in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago as it is on the streets of Milan, Manchester, and Madrid.

Traveling about the island, I take note of the many scattered footy pitches that would hardly qualify for the designation in more developed countries: gravelly swatches of earth that are only recognizable as football surfaces for their emptiness of development and for having a weathered, rusted post at either end. Bereft, so far as I can see, of even a blade of grass, uneven and unmarked, they still manage to look neither meager nor woebegone, as they might in Europe, but instead purposeful. These pitches speak a tacit claim to membership in the world and its goings on.

And what I see here in Bali echoes what I’ve seen all over the world: the iconic stars, billion-dollar clubs, and glittering cup competitions are not football’s heart. Real football is found in the games played on these wayward pitches, and in the passions of those who throng the far-flung streets of the globe, for whom football provides a connection to the greater world and its many
diverse peoples.

And so I return back to my impromptu beach kick-about with the soggy ball, and realize that football’s true heart is its simple ubiquity. We, this boy and I, separated by a gulf in wealth and in social circumstance, not to mention half a world in physical distance when my holiday ends, find such notions of our divide mere abstractions, irrelevant to the moment. I kick the ball to him, he takes it on his chest and hits a sublime volleyed return that sails 15 yards over my head.

No matter…there’s 10 minutes of good twilight left, and I will feast on every second of it.

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens Football Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here.

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