Bend it like Bakhit: Pick-up soccer with the locals

The B Team
The ‘B’ Team (photo credit Amanda Schupak)

I dedicate this post to my fellow Ladybugs (if you’re unfamiliar with the reference Google it) and to my Dad who spent every Sunday driving all over the state to away games where he coached us Ladybugs with much patience and encouragement.

I consider myself to be a fairly decent soccer player, well I was back in the day. Or so I thought. I played for about 8 years growing up and covered almost all positions at some point throughout my soccer career which I started out as a little pink Jaguar and later evolved into a powerful red Cougar. In middle and high school I was on a semi-elite club team. Seriously – It’s well known – Elizabeth and Andrew Shue played for it and Elizabeth even made a movie based on her experiences fighting for girls’ rights to play (it’s called Gracie). Anyway, my memories and confidence at having thought I was a decent player were thoroughly crushed in Syria when we had a pick-up game with the local villagers. Compared to all of them, I sucked.

When you live in a small village an hour from the internet you pass a lot of time playing soccer, or futbol as it’s known to everyone in the world outside North America, with your friends and the other villagers. It’s easy. Soccer doesn’t need a lot of equipment or a special place to play. All you need is a ball and an open space – something that was available in abundance in the middle of nowhere Syria where we were living. The guys in the village had grown up playing as children emulating their older peers then joining in themselves once they were old enough. It doesn’t take a lot of organization to get a group together to kick a ball around. Plus the only ongoing maintenance you need is an air pump and if at least one person has one, you’re all good to go. Goal boundaries can be made out of anything – cones, rocks, sticks, buckets, younger siblings, etc.

On to the game! I was on the B-team. Not actually ‘B’ as in second to ‘A’ but B because we worked in Area B of the site. Our team was made up of the B excavation unit archaeologists and our workers. For the record, there wasn’t actually an A that year. Our game was against the Area C team. I should have known this wouldn’t be my greatest victory when I realized one of the archaeologists on the C team was our Spanish colleague, Alejandro. We were doomed. He even had an actual soccer jersey with him. Spain knows futbol a lot better than North America. And Alejandro was proof of that. The C team also had Tate, Mike, Ian, and Jad who were pretty good too.

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Alejandro and some of his C teammates (Photo credit Amanda Schupak)

We all met up to begin the game and divided into our teams. Rasha and I were with our Shabab and Aaron (aka Haroon) and the workers from his building. We had a pretty good team ourselves with lots of skilled athletes and hard workers. Many people were in jerseys and overall sporty outfits. Some of the guys got really dressed up though! My buddy Faiz went all out in a nice satin shirt. On the other hand one or two of the villagers didn’t even have shoes. I thought this was going to be a hindrance for them, but of course I was wrong and even the shoeless dribbled circles around me.

We all got into our positions, well they did, I kind of stood around where I thought I’d be useful, and the game began. I spent a lot of time trotting up and down the field along the sides watching the main action take place in the center. That’s where most of our workers were along with Alejandro and Tate. It was incredible! So much skill. They were all amazing players with super-fast feet and strong precise kicks. I remember often looking over at Aaron and shrugging my shoulders. He’d do it back and we’d sprint ahead towards the goal. Even if I wasn’t getting the ball a lot I still wanted to be part of it. The energy. The joy. The cheers. The high fives. It was infectious. And so much fun!

As the game continued on, I could hear Rasha encouraging us all running up and down the field herself yelling “Yalla Shabab!” Sometimes during breaks she’d go to the sidelines and visit with the spectators, especially the children watching intently.

Rasha visiting the kids during the game (Photo credit Amanda Schupak)

The 2 or 3 times I did get the ball were back in defense and I would usually just boot it up towards the other team’s goal. All of the guys would cheer for me and yell “Kwayyis Tracy!” (“Good Tracy!”) They were so caught up in their own competitive nature and comfort playing one another that they had underestimated the female foreigner. I may not have been able to compete with close-up footwork but I’ve always had a really strong long distance ‘get it clear’ kick which was beneficial to our team.

The only downside to the game was not having soccer moms handing out orange slices at halftime. Instead we had village moms bringing us boiling hot sugary tea and fresh bread and dips. I’ve got to be honest – hummus isn’t quite as refreshing as citrus fruit. Looking back on it now, I’m really glad I grew up playing soccer. Not only was it fun and a good sport to play, but it gave me a special thing I had in common with my new Syrian friends. We had a shared interest we could participate in together and bond over, even if they all totally kicked my ass. And I learned valuable lessons about living life and not needing much to enjoy yourself. I mean seriously, we didn’t even have shinguards for god’s sake! This led to lots of bruising but no one cared. I honestly don’t remember who won the game. Was there even a winner? Did we keep score? I’m sure there was but it didn’t matter to me.

Next time the villagers got together for a futbol match I stayed back and instead of attempting to play I watched from the roof of the dig house in awe of their skills. It just goes to show you don’t need expensive coaches and club teams to be good at sports. All you need is a great group of friends to play with. Soccer is a pretty universal game. The first year I went to Egypt we brought deflated soccer balls for the village kids there. In current war torn Syria, people can still have a pick-up game. I saw a documentary recently which showed FSA (Free Syrian Army) soldiers kicking around a ball during their down time from being on the front lines. The game ended quickly when an alarm sounded alerting them of an incoming government plane flying over to drop barrel bombs.

I hope that our Shabab and their families are still playing pick-up games and kicking the ball around. Even in times of war there should be moments of stress releasing physical activity and team camaraderie.

All photo credits in the post go to Amanda Schupak. Thanks for taking such fantastic pics of our soccer game!


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