Monday, August 31, 2009

Off the Back Foot

Otavi Soccer Tournament, August 8-9

Whether people play sports, which sports they play, and how they play them reveal everything about a person’s character. I will play any sport, anytime, anywhere, but I prefer to play a team sports, usually soccer. I have been playing amateur, competitive soccer for thirty years, and cannot imagine a day when I cannot play. Unfortunately, my game has flaws, and last weekend they became evident, but fortunately no one seemed to care.

When I showed up for a soccer tryout on a cold Wednesday evening two months ago, I did not know what to expect. Beneath underpowered floodlights on a well-manicured field I played with nineteen other men, mostly of German descent, and immediately felt comfortable. They played well, and treated me with respect, even though I was a newcomer, and worse, an American. After practice, over a couple pints of German lager in the club bar, the coach asked for my email address. I had passed my audition and became a member Ramblers Football Club of Windhoek.

Over the last two months I have practiced with the Ramblers every week, and have played a few eleven-a-side matches against local rivals from townships around Windhoek. For the Ramblers I play sweeper, the last man in defense before the goalkeeper. I make a good sweeper because I see the field clearly, anticipate the game effectively, and have the speed to take advantage of the opponent’s mistakes. I make a good club member because I am not selfish, I am not overly competitive, and I do not make waves within the club. After playing amateur, adult soccer in 5 countries I know that being part of a sports club is as much about having fun with teammates as it is about winning the games, except in Japan.

Perhaps the most telling thing about the way I play soccer is that I play defensively instead of offensively, off the back foot if you will. I wait for the opponent to make their move, and I react to it to thwart them, and keep them out of my goal. True, I play soccer aggressively, and used to take pride in inflicting pain on opposing players, but always with a defensive mindset. I do not want to own possession of the ball, carry it forward, or even score. I have no designs on the offensive half of the field, and if I happen to find myself there I get nervous and often make mistakes. In essence, I eschew taking responsibility for winning the game, and only accept responsibility for losing it.

In five-a-side soccer, however, there is no sweeper, and no time to wait for the opposition to come to you. Every player must come forward, possess the ball, and play offensively, off the front foot. So, when I accepted the Ramblers’ invitation to join the team at the Otavi five-a-side tournament, it was with some reservations. It is never a good idea to disappoint your club, especially when it is a German club.

Otavi is a small farming community in north-central Namibia with an even smaller community of German descendents. The few Germans attend a private German school in Otavi’s dusty town center, with some children from distant farms boarding on school grounds. Every year the school organizes a tournament to supports its existence and the perpetuation of the German culture for the future generations. All the German soccer clubs from the length and breadth of Namibia attend, and support the school financially by paying to participate, drinking donated food and drink, and making additional cash contributions.

I drove to Otavi with Heiko; a German descendent whose grandparents fought in vain against the Boers in the early 20th century and ended up in prison camps, only to be released once their war was lost. He was raised on a cattle farm north of Windhoek, and also attended a German boarding school in Windhoek because there were no good schools remotely close to his property. Heiko, like all German-Namibians, still speaks German at home, but can speak English, and some tribal languages as well.

We passed the four-hour drive from Windhoek easily, with sporadic conversations about soccer, his family, Namibia, and the tournament. He is affable but quiet and enjoys the simple things in life. We drove in his VW minivan with his three children and wife, but we were the only ones who spoke. We arrived at the farm where we would stay the next two nights well after nightfall. We met the other members of the team behind the farmhouse, and took our places around a campfire to drink beer, eat sausages and anticipate the next day’s matches.

For my benefit everyone initially tried to speak English so I could understand and take part in the conversations. It lasted for the first hour, bus as the night wore on and Windhoek lagers went down, the conversation slipped into German as everyone lost lucidity. I did not want to infringe on the jovial nature of the event, and I tucked myself into my sleeping bag with only my worries of what the tournament had in store for company.

A cock’s crow woke me up around six, and I went outside to see the landscape I could not see the night before. The farm was set in a valley that ran east from the town of Otavi towards Grootfontein. The sandstone valley walls were covered in scrub brush, but the valley floor was mostly clear from cattle farming. I helped our host, Gunther, pick up empty beer bottles from around the fire pit, took pictures around the grounds, visited the captive cheetah, and then settled on the porch for coffee and the traditional breakfast of hard bread rolls known as rusks. Gradually my teammates joined me around the table to caffeinate and prepare for the games ahead. Around nine I drove with Heiko and his family into town, and the tournament.

Otavi town center is foursquare blocks of wide, dirt roads lined with modest, one-story houses. A tall yellow tent in the parking lot of the host school, visible from everywhere in town, guided us to the tournament. When we pulled into the school grounds, the parking lot was filled with athletes stretching in colorful uniforms, mothers and wives preparing their cameras beside the field, and older spectators sitting inside the tent drinking beer. Outside the grounds groups of local black children hung on the chain link fence to get a view of the biggest event on the annual Otavi calendar.

The tournament has three age classifications, each made up of four teams. My team played in the 30-40 year-old bracket and was made up of seven field players and a goalie. We were a good side, with only one weak player, which fortunately was not me. I started the first game and played well, hitting the crossbar once, the post once. We won the game 4-1, and we were satisfied with the result, but should have won by more. During the break between games we all imagined that we would hoist the trophy after the championship game on Sunday.

We lost the next game to a club from Walvis Bay, on the Atlantic coast, by one goal. In the final game we played timidly and lost by two goals to the rival club from Windhoek, the hated SKW, Sports Klub Windhoek. Part of the blame for the losses was mine because I rarely carried the ball forward and did not play enough offensive football. Our hopes of bringing a trophy home to the clubhouse trophy case were dashed, and we would be playing the consolation game the next day to finish worst, or hopefully, second worst.

The result was disappointing, but the benefit was that we could enjoy the German festivities without much regard for the game the next day. Within minutes of the final whistle with pints of German lager in our hands, the defeats were quickly put behind us. There was drinking to be done and songs to be sung, and that was enough to carry us well into the night.

Jagermeister is a German digestif made of herbs and spices and 35% alcohol. I have heard that people in German do not drink it, but in Namibia they drink it as if their German heritage depended on it. Almost every beer bought for me came with a shot, or tot, of Jagermeister, and I reciprocated during my rounds. As the booze flowed the teams mingled with each other, and old, heated rivalries were put on hold. Almost everyone knew each other, and I was the only American at the event, although everyone assumed I was English.

After dinner came an auction, with proceeds going directly to the school. At some point after the auction, after multiple tots of Jager, and multiple, raucous toast made in honor of the Ramblers club, my memory of the events began to blur. I remember being a bit confused on how to find my sleeping quarters, but woke up in my sleeping bag, so all was well. Note to self; do not drink Jager, and definitely do not drink it at the rate of the seasoned members of the Ramblers F.C.

The next day we won our consolation match easily against the only team we beat the previous day, and finished third. At the awards ceremony we collected ribbons for the honor of finishing third, and posed for a team photo. In truth, the ribbons were deserved because the event was not to see who is best as much as it was to be a part of the event. I am fortunate to have been invited to take part in the tournament, and I will bring the ribbon back to the U.S., even though my performance was as mediocre as I had feared it would be. Perhaps one day I will play more offensively, but for now, I will settle for living and playing off the back foot, but relish doing it in good company.

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