Spirit of the Game
The sea is calm and tranquil. The island, located approximately 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador, is buzzing with wildlife. Lizards scurry in and out of the brush lining the beach. Some birds soar overhead, while others, nearly 3 feet tall, wobble around on the ground. The constant sound of sea lions jumping in and out of the water serves to break the extreme silence. The sand, a deep reddish-black tint, remains eerily cool despite the sun’s omniscient presence.
All the while, a group of 20 or so people, coming from all over the world, have gathered together on the island. They have picked out a segment of land that has obviously been used before for this very purpose. The ground is a mixture of sand, dirt, and small pebbles. On either side of the clearing stand two crude but serviceable goals. The goals may be rusty and dilapidated. The ground may be slippery and even painful. The ball may be no more than a rubber kickball by American standards. And the languages are so intertwined that no one can truly communicate with each other. Yet and still, the sport being played is unmistakable. Here, 500 miles off the coast of true civilization, a soccer game is being played.
I grew up knowing just one sport: soccer. I have been playing it for as long as I can remember. My brother began playing when he was about 7, and as most siblings do, I followed in his footsteps. I started out playing recreation league, which is basically where all youth soccer players start their career. From here, I moved onto the club level, also known as "Travel soccer," so-called because my team would play teams from all over the country. For example, we would play in tournaments against teams from up and down the east coast, or in league games with teams from all over Virginia. We also did our fair share of traveling, going to places like Arizona and Florida for games. About this time, as I was traversing my way through the journey we all know as Middle School, my dad got involved with soccer. He took a job as General Manager of the Richmond Kickers, a professional soccer team based in Richmond, VA. He has since moved on to become President of the Club, and is respected nationwide as one of the pioneers of the new soccer movement based on vertical integration; that is, soccer clubs being taught from the ground up, going from youth clubs to semi-pro teams and onto professional teams, both for men and women. I went on to play for my High School squad, continued with my club team, and eventually was scouted to play for the Randolph-Macon team.
You may be asking yourself why any of my background matters, as far as relating to the game of soccer being played on a small and uninhabited island. Well, from the beginning, I was always blessed with the best equipment. I bought high quality cleats and shingaurds, even when I was only playing soccer recreationally. The teams I played on always had several fields from which to choose from, whether for practice or for match play. Because of my dad’s stature in the Virginia soccer world, I was able to train with a semi-professional team as early as my 16th birthday. I was able to work with the best coaches, play with the best players, and train on the best fields.
Basically, I was spoiled. However, this is not something that I have experienced in solitude. Most all of the players that I have competed with have been given the same advantages. Despite soccer’s low level of recognition on a professional level in the United States, the youth programs do not have this problem. In fact, a lot of money is put into the youth program, if for nothing other than parents wanting to make their children happy. They enjoy much of the best equipment that money can buy, because their parents are willing, and financially able, to pay for it. Because of this, they are also liable to take these advantages for granted. Personally, I never even thought about the money that my parents were putting into my love of soccer. I never thought about the fact that a club team like the one I played for had costs per season of well over $400. Add to that the cost of soccer cleats (upwards of $100), balls ($80 per), shingaurds ($30), and uniform costs (way too much), and you’ve got the recipe for excessive spending. Multiply all of these costs by the amount of seasons I have been playing (14), and you begin to understand how much money goes into a typical soccer player’s life in suburban America. I never thought about how much financial obligation and backing goes into the sport, and, in truth, I took it all for granted.
That is, until the Summer of 2003. My mother was trying to determine some sort of family vacation that we could all take. As it turned out, her sister (my aunt) had a son who was planning a trip with a few classmates to Ecuador. Now, as much as I enjoy traveling, the country of Ecuador did not quite pique my interest. However, after speaking to my cousin, I learned that along with this trip would be a week spent traveling around the Galapagos Islands. At this point, my only thought was 'Where do I Sign?' I had always been interested in wildlife, and this vacation seemed like a dream to me. The Galapagos Islands are one of the most diverse series of islands on the entire globe, where the animals range from Penguins to Flamingos to enormous Turtles. Each island is essentially a world of its own, and for this reason, I felt like this was a chance to explore something that I may never see again.
We left for the trip in August of 2003. After spending a week in Ecuador, which was actually much more fun than I had anticipated, we got to the part of the journey that I had been waiting for. We took a plane and landed on Santa Cruz, the biggest Island of the Galapagos, and the center of human activity. From here, we would be traveling by boat to the various islands that were located among this amazing archipelago. As I got to know our tour guide and the boat’s crew, it became more and more clear to me that they were huge soccer fans. This did not really surprise me, as most of them were Ecuadorian, and I had already seen the immense amount of support that the sport carried there. When I informed them that I also played soccer, they seemed taken aback, almost in awe that someone from the United States actually enjoyed the sport. They also informed me that near the end of our week-long trip, we would have a chance to play a game, and that I was more than welcome to join them.
That day came on the second to last day of our journey. We arrived at a tiny island called Rabida. This island was known for its amazing beach, which was comprised of a deep burgundy color. This color was a result of the immense volcanic activity that had become a staple of this island. As we neared the beach, moving slowly so as not to disturb the sea lion population that was resting nearby, I saw a large clearing of land with two unmistakable objects: Goals. There, less then 100 feet from the shore, was a soccer field. Obviously, it was not up to par as far as American standards, but it was nothing short of amazing in my eyes. Amazing in the sense that here, in a place where no humans could possibly live and would only visit maybe once a week, a soccer field was present. The crew of my tour boat, myself, as well as some other tour boats that had obviously known when this game was going to occur, all gathered near the field and took off our shoes. One ball was present, a crude and slightly flat Kelme ball that would never pass for game-worthy in the United States. Most all of the staff spoke Spanish, but at this point, communication was unnecessary. We were here to play a game; a game that we all could enjoy, and a game that brought us together, not as tourists and staff members, but as people.
What Americans lack, and what these Ecuadorians had, was a passion for the spirit of the game. They did not need expensive equipment, and they did not need a top of the line soccer ball. For that matter, they did not even need a common language. They played the sport because of its simplicity, because of its beauty. They found time, in their constant workload of moving from island to island, week to week, to set up a day when they could all meet and enjoy their sport. They did it because they love the game. This is what we, as Americans, do not understand. We tend to have an immediate rejection of all things foreign, sports included. If we didn’t create it, we want no part of it. These people I played with did not see the sport in this way. They saw it as a chance to bond, as a chance to enjoy themselves and get away from the stresses of modern life. They saw soccer for what it is: a game to be enjoyed by a group of people, with no regard for race, class, gender, or age. They understood that soccer was an equaliser, where material wealth and stature have no meaning. They understood the spirit of the game.