As Argentinians, Nigerians, Kuwaitis, Iranians and Greeks -- to name just a few represented nations -- approach the hockey field on 45th and Massachusetts to play soccer tonight, they will know to watch over their nonaligned shoulders for American University's campus security. It's a ritual, at least a decade old, that happens every Friday afternoon throughout the summer and into fall.
It begins with the screeching arrival of the campus security car. A bulky security officer will emerge and amble over to the field, as the players studiously ignore him and continue to play. His message: "Gentleman, I'm going to have to ask you to leave," although not in those words.
We will continue to push the soccer ball around until the security officer is standing rather conspicuously in the middle of play. When it becomes more than obvious that he seeks an audience with us, someone will pick up the ball and we will congregate around him with surprise, as if this is the first time it has ever happened. Some players, interrupted in the heat of the game, might use this occasion for a Socratic discussion about the individual and the institution (although not in those words). We will eventually disband, after giving our opinions in everything from pidgin English to Wolof -- and then gypsy around to some other field, some no-man's land where squirrels would fear to ferret, and resume playing. And if it's another piece of land reserved that afternoon for the Annual Softball Association of Grenada War Zone Veterans or some such entrenched group, we will be told -- again by the security officer -- to move on.
Questions that might occur to the traditional Western mind -- "Why don't you just arrange a playing time with the local athletic association?" or "Why don't you find another playing field where you won't get hassled?" -- are utterly and patently irrelevant. They are missing the point of nonaligned soccer.
Soccer is the Old World's shrink: The respective traditions of our countries, as well as the travails of the modern world, can be set aside for a glorious 90 minutes as we stretch and flex muscles, as we score goals. To prepare administratively in advance would be far too compulsive, far too Western. At least, that is the thinking.
Football or baseball fever can reach tremendous heights here, but soccer is embedded deep in the bones of the Old World; it's as instrinsic a part of life as bread or blood. The immense passion many have for the game can go to extremes. The Juventus-Liverpool violence in Belgium was catastrophic, but certainly nothing new in the annals of soccer violence. El Salvador and Honduras launched aerial bomb attacks on each other following a heated series of violent soccer games (the OAS had to intervene); and the British team Manchester United was suspended from playing at its own grounds some years ago due to the violence of its fans.
But extremism aside, soccer for the AU nonaligned (most of the players are American University graduates) is a perennial group friendship that is a microcosm of the worldwide love for the sport. Soccer is the universal language here. To the uninitiated observer, all is cacophony, as people scream in English, Spanish, French and Arabic to "Pass the ball!" (At a recent game against a World Bank team, one of the bank players said to our team, "Please, can you people keep quiet? We cannot hear the referee.") But to us it is the Sound of Soccer.
There is no stopping for timeouts with talk of yardage or offensive gain. This is a recreational Chartres. When we emerge on Fridays, anonymous artists from mysterious quarters, we come to build a soccer cathedral. And we marvel at its buttresses and stained glass windows, rather than its enormous size. It is a far greater high to have scored a beautifully constructed goal, where you might have leapt acrobatically into the air and scissor-kicked the ball over your head, than to have scored three less-than-spectacular goals. And for the rest of the week, in idle moments at work, that hypothetical goal is replayed endlessly in our minds in slow motion. As the crowd cheers, we are scoring that goal in the World Cup final.
Few of us talk with one another away from the game. Some of us do not return for years, perhaps because of work schedules or having to return to the home country. But a core group remains, year after year, and it doesn't take long to be familiar with the one-dimensional personae we carve for ourselves when we walk on to the field.
The paternal Argentine, who cracks jokes about green cards ("Hey play like that again, man, and we'll call Immigration on you"), is solid and intelligent as a player. The Guatemalan we affectionately label "the Little Dictator" will never head the ball during a game. The Sierra Leonan who greets us with genteel humility becomes -- on the soccer field -- a self-mythologized superhero called "Secret Formula." The father-and-son Czech duo who have come every Friday of every summer for more than 10 years like nothing better than to discuss world politics or art before a game. During the game, the older (referred to as Papa) stands contentedly in goal, while the son plays like a desperate workhorse trying to break his harness.
The Ugandan has a devastating, two-legged sliding tackle that tends to make the victim wish he had never taken up the game. The amiable Greek becomes overexcited on the field and blows many opportunities accordingly (he recently married an excitable Puerto Rican and has not been heard from since). And our beloved and manic Tunisian is known for his ability to roll and roll, if tripped, until someone awards him a penalty. The list goes on; we all know who we are.
Now, as we approach winter, we lose the daylight earlier; the nonaligned season is drawing to a close. But come spring, we will reemerge, like Third World crocuses, in T-shirts, pants and cleats. We will play furiously -- until we hear the familiar screech of tires on Massachusetts Avenue.