I’m sure you’re all sick to death of me bleating on about how great the kids are. If so, then skip this one. As you know, my daughter is something of an all-round athlete, and now that the softball season is over, her attention has turned to football. There is a regular sequence of events associated with the start of every season of every sport: First, a lack of enthusiasm, followed by the constant refrain of “I don’t want to play X, I don’t want to play X” followed by a slow growing interest leading to active engagement as pre-season practice begins.
This season was no different, except that her initial refusal to play was replaced by a “Maybe” when asked if she intended to play, although this may be due to the fact that her best friend is one of her team mates. Due to the vagaries of the league schedule, I have the kids on the weekends when her team plays away. There is only one U12 girls team on the island, so they are playing against teams from all over the county. The first game of the season was against a team based an hour away, and far enough off the beaten track that we could hear the banjo music long before we arrived. I won’t give a match report, except to say that despite a strong showing, her team, now named “Riptide” lost. Not the best way to start the season, but at least they weren’t crushed.
I missed the second game as my sweetie and I were away for the weekend, making up for the fact that I missed the San Francisco trip. Again, the team lost, 2-1 and my greatest fear was that this would turn into as dismal a season as her last softball season. Not so: the third game ended up as a victory, with my daughter getting her first goal of the season, so you can imagine how happy I was for her. Again, a familiar pattern emerged. She usually starts any season with some reluctance, but at some point, a door in her brain is unlocked and she realises: “Oh yeah, I’m competitive and aggressive”. From that point on, there is no stopping her, and she throws herself into the game with gusto.
This brings us to yesterday. The torrential rain of the night before, and the constant, often heavy showers of Saturday morning left me with a sense of foreboding. I had visions of the pitch resembling the first day of the Somme in terms of playability. I realise that the often knee-deep Flanders mud didn’t stop some British troops from kicking footballs in front of them as they left the trenches and walked very slowly towards the German machine guns, but I think it’s a bit much to expect 11 year-old girls to do the same, albeit without the machine guns.
This is not to say that she hasn’t faced similar situations in the past. Two years ago, her team played a game in November under inhuman conditions: As we parents huddled under a portable marquee, swathed in several layers and clutching insulated mugs, our daughters slogged through a quagmire in the pouring rain. My daughter has always disliked playing in goal, saying on many occasions that the Goalie always gets the blame when the team concedes a goal, and how she doesn’t like being cold, wet and muddy. However, I have a picture on my phone from that day of her soaking wet and covered in mud after a stint in goal. She an expression of unadulterated joy and enthusiasm spread across her face, the result of the aforementioned door in her brain being opened.
Yesterday was a fine example of the determination that she and her team mates have developed: The team went 0-2 down, fighting back to lead 4-2 before ending the game as 5-3 winners. My daughter didn’t score, but throughout the game she showed commitment and determination, defending with strength and skill, often making important clearances. She does have certain advantages though. She is the tallest girl on her team, as well as being broad shouldered and athletic, although some times these traits work against her.
You see, there is a substantial height variation among 10 and 11 year-old girls that is truly startling. Some of the opposing players have been a good foot shorter than her, and referees, most of them dads themselves, presumably take such things into account. At the second away game, my daughter was running with the ball at her feet when an opponent much shorter and lighter than her attempted a tackle. They collided, with the other girl falling to the ground whilst my daughter barely broke stride. There was no malice involved, simply two girls subject to the laws of physics attempting to control the ball, yet the ref awarded a free kick to the opposition, having, in his eyes at least, see a diminutive player clattered to the ground by a bigger, stronger opponent. This happened a couple of times to my daughter, as she quite vociferously told me after the final whistle.
I had to tell her that this is a common occurrence, even in professional football, and that at her level, referees are often prone to their own biases, even when attempting to apply the laws of the game in as even-handed a manner as possible. However, I did agree with her about the obvious favouritism of the referee – he being from the same area as the home team. Still, her enthusiasm for the game remains undiminished. No doubt two consecutive wins for her team as well as her goal and sterling performances have helped in this regard. I don’t know how long her interest in the beautiful game will last, but as long as she enjoys it, I will be there on the touchline shouting encouragement and giving as much vocal support as I can. I do have to admit though, that at times I find it difficult to restrain my natural instincts and keep my shouts “G” rated. It would be very bad form indeed for me to stand on the touchline and, to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys classic “Go West” chant “You’re shit, and you know you are, you’re shit, and you know you are” at a bunch of young girls. Besides, I’ve seen some of the dads on the opposing teams, and they’re all much bigger than I am.