The Beautiful Game

April 28, 2022   ·   0 Comments

By Anthony Carnovale

There’s a small dorm room on the other side of the world. I don’t remember the name of the building in which it was housed or the number that decorated the door. There was a single bed, a dresser, a small bookshelf, a smaller fridge, a sink, and an old TV with a single channel. When I first walked into that room, it felt like the loneliest room on the planet.

This was my home for a year. It was 1999, and I was in Australia studying to be a teacher. I was far away from home. For the first few days, I didn’t do much but sleep — the jetlag did my head in. I just stayed in my room, read books, ate hummus sandwiches and Tim Tam cookies, and slept — a lot.

After a few days, I met Tinu, from Tibet. He cursed like a sailor and didn’t like to sleep. I also met Stewart. Stew played air guitar and jumped up and down in his room as he mimed a riff to Bohemian Rhapsody (for some reason, he always wore headphones that were never plugged into anything).

In the wee hours of the morning people would congregate outside my window. I could smell cigarettes, weed, and hear all the chatter in languages that weren’t my own. When I couldn’t sleep, I’d turn on the TV and watch whatever was on that single channel. This is how I discovered the Beautiful Game; this is how I fell in love with soccer.

I could never tell if the games were live or if they were being replayed; it was hard enough figuring out the time difference between Sydney and Toronto. Through a phlegmy screen, I watched players with names like Scholes, Giggs, Schmeichel, Keane, Yorke, Cole, Solksjaer boss a soccer pitch like I hoped to one day boss a classroom. It just so happened that was the year Manchester United won three major trophies and were arguably the best team in the world. Right time, right place. Right team. By the end of that year, I returned home with a degree, an awkward Australian accent, and a new love for the game of football.

Like most Canadian kids, I played hockey. I only ever played soccer to help keep me in shape for the hockey season (it didn’t work). I scored all of four goals in four years — all four goals were scored in a single game. At that time, soccer was something that only mattered every four years. The World Cup was chance for friends to get together, pack up our cars and head down to College Street with an oversized Italian flag waving from our car. We used to roll our eyes at the people driving around with Canadian flags — it felt like they were trying to remind us of where we were from and who we should be cheering for. Like most people, I was surprised to even hear that we had a national soccer team. Names like Stalteri, Radzinksi, De Guzman, Forrest, Peschilido sounded more like a rumor than a real foot kicking a real ball.

A lot has changed since those early years. If soccer was once a second-hand sport, it’s now an integral part of my life. I schedule my days around Manchester United games.

A few years back, I flew to London to watch United play West Ham United. I sat in the away stands and cheered on — albeit quietly — the likes of Ronaldo, Berbatov and Park Ji Sung. In 2012, I watched Spain play against Germany from a small trattoria in Mallorca. I remember Barcelona humbling United in a Champions League final (I was only slightly disappointed —Messi delivered an awe-inspiring performance).

The game eventually took on a whole new meaning for me. I started to see football as a metaphor for the life I wanted to live. The game is played with minimal commercial breaks. The pace of the game is how I want to move through my own life- slow and measured; the game is less violent than hockey and American football. The game demands your full attention — the more you watch, the more you learn that the best parts of the game are the subtle parts of the game, all the little things that happen between the goals.

I no longer saw players kicking a ball; I saw men juggling with their feet. My favourite play is the ‘switch’ — a player passes the ball from one side of the pitch to the other. The receiving player often takes the ball off his chest, pushes the ball into open space and charges forward. The same way Roger Federer slices a tennis ball, Kevin De Bruyne strikes a soccer ball on the half-volley; the way Tiger Woods chips a ball onto the green, Robert Lewandowski chips the ball over a sprawling keeper. There are no racquets, skates, gloves, bats or sticks — only feet (and sometimes a head).

As a father to two young kids, both of whom play soccer, we are fully invested into the game. I’m now shuttling my kids between tryouts, games, practices and tournaments. For the past couple of months, we’ve been on the road five days a week. We celebrated, as a family, after the Canadian women’s national soccer team beat Sweden for the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. My son and I had the privilege of being at BMO the day that Canada qualified for the 2022 World Cup. We’re all in when it comes to this game.

In so many ways, football is a simple game that translates easily to the entire world. Participants play the game with their feet; fans watch the game with their hearts. Let’s go Canada!

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