Fútbol and Friends

John Villanueva - Ecuador

September 28, 2012

It’s the first week back from Quito from our six-month host communities and I spent eight days in the provincial capital city of Riobamba, about four hours south of Quito and ten times smaller. With a population that small in comparison to Quito, the week-long stay was therapeutic. And the night before we all returned to Quito, I couldn’t wait to finally tell my English speaking friends about my newly found freedom and where my liberation from crime-rate paranoia has taken me throughout the city. But that night in Riobamba, as I journaled all the happenings and thoughts of that day, my host brother Daniel pushed open my ajar bedroom door with a startling sqeak, and in his cool, Latin American accent asked “You wone to play sohkr?” And like a game of improv, I blurted “G’Yeah – uh – sure!” with the many implications surfacing from the subconscious of my mind. I finished journaling, but decided I’d need another page of space later.

I could feel an abyss of fear forming in my chest. The last time I played soccer, I battled it out against unenthusiastic prima donnas and played with a dingy foam ball in the school gymnasium during my sophomore year – that’s not even close to the conditions I was soon to face. On top of that, paranoia finally struck me in Riobamba, and I wondered about the likelihood of breaking something in my body. In eighth grade, I broke my wrist playing flag football, and I haven’t played the sport since, and soccer is similarly aggressive to football, and I’m more likely to trip in soccer, and ugh! So I did some push-ups to channel out the nervous energy and to hopefully fill the abyss in my chest with the strain of my pectorals, but mostly to aimlessly buff up my arms because for some reason it meant I’ll get better at soccer. The push-ups worked. They pumped up my body and I felt a bit more confident. With a let’s-do-this attitude, I layered my blue and orange Adidas shorts over my gym shorts to keep warm, and rocked a red Adidas sweatshirt over a grey tank, with their classic triple-stripe stitch lining the outer edges of my arms – and hiking shoes, because that’s the only pair I brought last week.

I Was Ready.

No. Just kidding. I definitely was not ready. When I slid silently into the car filled of vulgar Spanish and cigarette smoke, I appraised my opponents that took up every seat and realized I was up against twenty to twenty four year olds! At least that’s what they looked like; but to be fair, most young adults in Ecuador look older than their age – or maybe I just look to young for my age; I don’t know. The point is their appearance intimidated me, and the abyss in my chest started to form again. I held my composure, even as the abyss dug deeper into my in my left lung when I found out we had to play on a concrete soccer field. Concrete? Glorious – now landing from a fall is sure to hurt. But I needed to simply stay on both feet and I’d be fine. As we walked onto the field, I realized how fresh and raw my emotions were; like flying into Ecuador for the first time, I’m jumping into a new sport for practically the first time. I embraced the newness, the frigid air, and the leering ferocity of experienced competitors that lingered over me, and I timidly joined the circle of juggling feet to warm up as the rest of the guys changed into their sports gear. Whatever happens happens, I told myself. And with that, it was my turn to juggle the ball with my legs. With the sole of my shoe, I rolled the ball towards my body and kicked it upward with the flick of my foot to the height of my face as I always did in kickball, and let it drop to my bent knee which sent it off in the direction of the guy with the Los Baños city shirt. My good two counts of contact with the ball were embarrassing compared to their average of four counts, but in a hasty defense, I made it clear that I never really played soccer before. I stood in deep anticipation, when finally everyone was listo, ready to begin our 3-on-3. Me, Oscar, and “Baños” (I don’t remember his name) against my brother Daniel and his two teammates. There I was, opposite my opponents, with a freezing atmosphere and a low, orange lighting exacerbating the tension I felt, when Baños dropped the ball to his feet. The game had begun.

I took only two or three strides when Baños kicked the ball straight to me. The pressure was on. I dribbled it as fast as I could to the other half of the field, until two of my opponents began to hone in on me, forcing me to kick it in a forward-left direction between my two opponents to Oscar on the left side of the field before they completely entrapped me. Relief set in as I successfully kicked the ball passed those two opponents, but reality struck, and it occurred to me that Oscar wasn’t actually to my forward left at all. The ball rolled deep into the dark corner of the park, taking my hopes and dreams and happiness along with it. Right off the bat, I made my first mistake of the game, and everyone smirked at me with, “You have to use your eyes”. How incredible it is to forget the simplest tasks. But the game continued, and I made plenty more mistakes. I passed the ball straight to an opposing player a few times, kicked the ball too lightly towards Oscar and Baños that my brother’s teammates nearly took control of the ball, and accidently positioned my feet perfectly so that the ball rolled right between them when it came towards me. The thing about soccer is that no one can use their arms, and coming from a water polo and swimming background, I found it funny that even in sports I could experience culture shock. Every time the ball flew over my head, I instantaneously reacted with a swift shot-block: my arm held high and mighty like a champ, elbow slightly bent, and fingers spread out like the wings of an eagle. Though when the ball bounced off my wrist, I recoiled like a madman who fractured his ulna with the same speed I had defiantly raised my arm. I couldn’t help but laugh off that mistake! My arms naturally want to be used. From that point on, I noticed how much more aggressively I made use of my arms than the other players, using them to keep distance from a body that got too close, or to cut in front of an opponent when we brawled for an open pass.

Basically, the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the game consisted of these mistakes, but from then on I proved otherwise. I still made mistakes, yet I finally displayed my competence for the sport. With the assists from Baños and Oscar, I scored a total of four goals throughout the entire night! Though in my opinion, kicking the ball in the general direction of the goal is simple, but to actually control the ball intelligently with your feet takes skill. So I lauded those little feats of skill between each goal much more. I stole the ball from my brother Daniel before he could kick it into the goal, chest bumped a long pass which subsequently assisted Baños to score a goal, made a regular assist to Oscar, struggled my way around an opponent with the ball in my possession, and made an incredible steal from my opponent using the back of my heel in a reverse kick to send the ball flyer over my head from behind my back and out of the possession of my opponent who was about to score for a goal. I know that all sounds amazing – and it is! Especially for me – but mistakes were still mixed into that pot of good soup. The altitude increased the frequency of my deep breaths, and finally, with searing lungs and the taste of blood heavy in my dry throat, the guys called it quits. Daniel bought a revered, five liter jug of life-sustaining liquid from the minimarket from across the street, and we downed the crisp water straight from the bottle. I finally replenished the fluids in my blood stream, and after a satisfying “aahh!” of quenched thirst, I looked around at Daniel, Baños, Oscar, and my two other opponents. The moment was silent, like that brief silence after the test proctor finally calls time for the last section of the SAT. Except in this moment, I wasn’t happy because an exhausting test had ended; I was happy because I felt like part of another community in Riobamba. Daniel’s friends were happy to have me there, especially for adapting well during my first soccer game. And I didn’t even fall once.

In the end, I enjoyed playing Fútbol, but I’m not saying I shouldn’t have been afraid from the beginning. Fear naturally invades everyone’s comfort. I need bravery, or Valentía! Like how I was brave enough to communicate my way through a two day journey to find a map of Riobamba, to join the giant group of cyclists protesting for a greener city, to make the baby in front of me laugh at my funny faces without her mother knowing as I walked down Veloz street, to approach the German volunteer who I ended up conversing with for a straight hour, or to ask the juice ladies to help me document my experience with my video camera. There has been fear in everything I’ve done for the first time in Riobamba, and every ounce of bravery I’ve mustered has only expanded my sense of community and belonging in this incredible city. As long as the risks aren’t life threatening, why not go ahead and take the chance? I’ll only regret it, wondering of the possibilities if I don’t. With every risk I’ve taken to connect with the people of Riobamba, I’m immersing deeper into the culture and putting my Spanish speaking skills to the test. Riobamba is a city full of amiable people and interesting places, reminding me of something important for this intercultural experience (and for life in general): Anytime is a great time to do something for the first time.

John Villanueva