In 2004 journalist Franklin Foer wrote How Soccer Explains the World, a book that attempted to detail, well, how soccer explains the world. Critics generally found the work, which linked the planet’s most popular sport with, say, genocidal massacres in the Balkans, both entertaining and absurd. “Foer’s book is such an eccentric, fascinating exposé of a world most of us know nothing about that his inability to prove his central thesis seems almost irrelevant,” reviewer Joe Queenan wrote in The New York Times.
But to my thinking, Foer clearly was on to something when he used soccer as a prism through which to examine non-soccer aspects of society. As it happens, I’ve been refereeing youth soccer since 1998. The first six years were in New Mexico and the next seven in Southern California. No reason to stop just because I became New To Seattle last summer. I’m now finishing up my 14th season, with another 30 or so matches under my belt in several leagues around Seattle.
So, coupled with my 16 moves across the country and abroad over 40 years, here is my humble effort to outline some ways of How Youth Soccer Explains Seattle.
Decaying civic infrastructure This may come as a surprise to soccer fans, but there is no requirement in the Laws of the Game that soccer goals have nets. Which, judging from some city-owned Seattle fields I’ve been on, is a good thing. I took the picture to the right before officiating a recent match at Queen Anne Bowl. The netting, as you can see, was a little dodgy. I’ve seen better-looking spider webs. To me, there’s a clear linkage with the city’s faded street signs as well as the potholes on city streets throwing my poor nine-year-old Subaru Forester more out of alignment every day.
Seattle weather Until technology businesses took root around Puget Sound, the Seattle economy (timber, shipping, tourism) was pretty much tied to outdoor conditions. So Seattleites learned to persevere no matter what the situation, even if standing water was the result. Youth soccer in Seattle illustrates this perfectly. Here’s another picture I took, at Smith Cove Bridge, a field in the very shadow of the mighty Magnolia Bridge (that’s Puget Sound in the background). That faint stripe running from top to bottom amid the flooding and the furrows is the halfway line; you’re looking at the very center of the pitch. As that great soccer strategist, Donald Rumsfeld, once said, you play the fields you have, not the fields you want. But for me there are some limits. Before the match, I single-handedly (with a rubber glove on that single hand) removed 35 pounds of goose poop to make the field safer (if not all that much more playable) for the teams.
“Seattle Nice” Now I know there has been a debate here for years over whether the widely held perception of “Seattle Nice” represents an admirable shared community cultural characteristic or a mask hiding disturbing passive-aggressive behavior. But whatever its cause, I find that “Seattle Nice” generally has governed when it comes to youth soccer. With only a few exceptions, the coaches and parents who line the sidelines of the matches I referee have been better behaved than what I have experienced elsewhere. (In this context, “behaved” means not calling out things like “Ref, that was indictable!” after a no-foul call, or, as was once shouted to me in California, “Pond scum!,” which I later learned is the lowest form of living organism.) The kids in Seattle have been great. I’ve never had problems with them anywhere else (not even in New Mexico where, during my time there, the state Legislature found it necessary to pass a law making it a felony to hit a referee). But here in Seattle, players actually seem more intent on playing the ball rather than each other, or me.
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