The players' ages ranged from 5 to 55, including husband-and-wife teams and clusters of siblings, in-laws and cousins. Though most showed up every week, some players dropped out after only one game. There was, for instance, the case of a State Department official. "I don't care for the priorities you set up for your game," he told a friend who had invited him. "Each time I was about to score, a kid half my size snatched the ball from me. I won't come again to be humiliated by a 9-year-old girl."
When we started our game some seven years ago, soccer was still a strange foreign rite, even in our sophisticated Northwest neighborhood.
Initially the youngsters resisted the ban on hands touching the ball, but the chance for nimble little feet outfoxing mere bulk quickly won converts from basketball and football. Some parents who stayed to watch joined the game, first as goalies -- a slot no child wanted because of the blame for letting the opponent score -- then out in the field.
One mother of three insisted on playing as a forward, which she did passionately. She kept throwing herself into the thickest melee, often ending up on top of several bodies. She would apologize, layering kisses on the children as she helped them get up. "I don't mind that she knocks us over and kicks us all the time," a boy of 11 said to me, "but could you please, please ask her not to kiss us afterwards."
the smaller children grumbled that they were always assigned to play defense and thus could not score. One day, my son Danny, 5, proudly informed me that he had taken the ball away from Tim, 13, one of the best players. A little later, Tim walked over to me. "Would you mind telling your son," Tim said softly, "that he and I are on the same team?"
From the beginning, there were fears that the game would be dominated by the parents whose ranks at various times were joined by a house-guest from Antigua who dazzled us with his footwork, a British newspaper reporter who stopped by to see what was going on, and a Czech emigre who outraged the kids by insisting on corner kicks his team was not entitled to. But the visiting wizards seldom returned, and few of the parents could last through the entire game, which went on and on, often three hours, until even the toughest 12-year-old ran out of breath.
When there were too many adults, the children complained that "the grownups hog the ball." But if only a few adults showed up, the grumbling was louder that "the grownups don't come because they don't really care."
Weather permitting, the game began after 2 each Saturday afternoon, as soon as 16 people had gathered. One of the adults asked two children who had gained recognition as the best scorers to serve as captains. The captains picked their teams and took turns enlisting new players as they showed up. No one was rejected.If too few people came, we recruited joggers, customers from the corner drugstore and even barefoot American U coeds who sauntered by. But with as many as 35 players on a perfect spring afternoon, we simply pushed back the sidelines marked by jackets and sweaters. Unfortunately, we could not move the goal lines because the two aluminum poles serving as goalposts were inserted in concrete slots set in the ground.
We never had a referee. Fouls and free kicks and other interruptions were decided by a kind of censensus based on an honor system.
Last spring we just couldn't get enough players together, and our games kind of fell apart. Part of the reason is that many of our boys have signed up to play in Montgomery Soccer Inc. -- a corporation that offers 550 teams (age-coordinated by a computer), professional referees in black uniforms and mimeographed messages such as the one admonishing parents not to get emotionally involved when cheering their kids from the sidelines.
"Maybe we parents got too old," John Rigby, 46, amused the other day. His wife Anne and their five children formed part of our core group. "Or maybe our kids have grown so independent that they don't want to commit themselves to playing with their parents. I am sorry that our game seems to have ended."
In the 1970's, soccer became as American as gourmet cooking and Henry Kissinger. It is a success, and therefore it must be properly franchised and packaged. Our neighborhood soccer game is as embarrassing now as innocence.