We played by light, the three of us, until the light was no more.
In the distance, the glow of campfires dotted the loose sand that was untouched by the waves of the Pacific ocean as groups of people gathered about to enjoy a gorgeous sunset that dotted the beach with flecks of pink, orange and golden yellow.
My nephew and niece have grown up with soccer and the love of the game from their very beginnings. My nephew was born during a World Cup year and the sound of the 2002 tournament was his prenatal drum beat. His father and I sat on a couch together, 12 years ago, as two young men watching a tournament sharing in the fun and the pain, as my sister slept in another room. My niece is just getting used to a new team and in her devotion to training you see the complications with the future of women’s soccer and need for things like a viable Women’s professional soccer league.
They passed the ball between each other and then rolled it across the expanse of sand to my left side as I collected the ball and shifted it out to my dominant right foot.
The light of the setting sun cascaded over the wet sand as the methodic thump of the ball punctuated through the sound of the rolling waves. The cold Pacific Ocean soothed the pain that came from an aching instep after firing the ball down the sand with my bare feet as though I was leading her into a great scoring opportunity.
Earlier, we sat on the couch together during the heat of the day as the surf rolled outside and the players from Costa Rica and the Netherlands played their hearts out in Brazil. I talked to my nephew about anything that had to do with the game.
“I play myself on the Timbers” he said, holding his head slightly askew as Robben deftly pushed the ball and his body past a Costa Rica defender.
What game? The one you play on your tablet?
“No that one is a different soccer game. I play whatever team they give me there. I play with FIFA on my X-Box 360 and I’m on the Timbers in that game, I made myself a character.”
Extra time rolled into a penalty shootout and I looked at my nephew as his stare flickered between the tablet in his hand and the screen on the wall. I realized later that he was playing as Argentina, virtually, while the game was going on.
Someone once said that kids are shameless front runners and that their love is easily manipulated by those athletes that are winners and popular at the time, and that appears to be the case in many situations. When I asked him his favorite player he said, “Probably Messi. I like Messi a lot”.
However, their sole love of a club team was manipulated by me as I gave them a Timbers Army scarf when they were very young and we, together, have never let go of that bond that we share.
Earlier, at the beach, a tiny child played in a tide pool with the Albiceleste draped about his shoulders and the tiniest Messi #10 you will ever see. We walked around him as his dad strolled by wearing his own Argentina kit and the proud look of a man who just watched his team qualify for the next round of the World Cup. In the distance, another child walked down to the beach with an England training top clad around his shoulders.
These kids are the mirrors to a culture of father and mother to son and daughter. They exude of the love of the game because we pass that love onto them, and in the love of the game and passing of traditions the game grows, as it does everywhere. This love passed between generations is immeasurably important, more than any advertising campaign or publicity the world over.
With the lights low and the setting sun silhouetting us against the rolling surf, the ball played in and out of the wet sand as the tide came in. My nephew practiced jumping up and receiving the ball in the air as he watched Messi perform earlier. My niece took the ball in stride with her bare feet and passed it back to her brother asking him, “Does it hurt when you pass the ball?”
He flicked a pass over my head as I charged into the surf, collecting the ball and sending it back into play with a touch of my left foot. As they shouted and played and danced in the distance, I was a boy of 10 again. I charged around the beach making plays, making mistakes, connecting with passes and trying stupid things.
Yet, I was also watching as a proud uncle as the kids experienced the true joy of the game in the pure poor simplicity that a ball, two kids, and an endless expanse of sand can bring.
This moment reflected those moments from 24 hours earlier when, against the backdrop of exploding fireworks and campfire smoke, we passed the ball around out on the beach with only the narrow beam of a flashlight showing where we were and where the ball was.
It is in these moments that we see the endless opportunity and pure joy of the game. It is in these moments that match fixing, bad defense, terrible owners, and poor sportsmanship rolls off our shoulders and we return to the truth that the game simply takes a ball and willing players.
The simplicity of the game, the simplicity of the action makes this game. It is the fact that every gender and every class of person can play. It is the fact that with the ball at your feet and the sand, grass, concrete, or turf underneath you that the world untangles from the mess that we construct around us into the simple act of kicking the ball to your young niece and nephew as they run and chase and believe that they are the greats of the world.
When the time came to leave, with hours left to go, his mother said to him…
“What do you want to do with your uncle before you leave? Do you want to go play mini golf?”
And he replied
“Ok, we can play mini golf, but then we can go to the beach, we can go to the beach and play soccer again, that’s what I want to do before he leaves.”