Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Thursday Football

Thursdays have come to be one of my favorite days of the week. Perhaps interestingly, the reason has nothing to do with the University or Peter or Skype time with family overseas. Rather, my peculiar good will toward the penultimate day of the work-week derives from a source unconnected to anything causing my sojourn in Scotland or directly resulting from it. Thursdays are soccer days.

Come sing the glories of that sport,
That game divinely blessed,
Whose single rule is “hands no touch!”
(Or if so don't confess).

Come dance on pitches green and smooth,
With some lines painted, too,
On which one ball is passed and struck,
Past a keeper to put through.

Come score a goal with head or feet,
Or buttocks if you want'er
For there's no manlier sport than this:
Football (that is, soccer).

For the last five years I have had little to no contact with the game that has in no small way defined most of my life since I was five years old. This is because adult recreational soccer in East Texas is almost non-existent unless you want to play on Sundays in Tyler. Going to church in Longview kind of put the finishing touch on an already logistically difficult idea. I had vague hopes of renewing a regular involvement in soccer of some sort when we were planning on moving to Scotland, because I know that the sport has a much bigger role in society here. It's a rarity for a group of guys to get together over here to play basketball; baseball and american football are pretty much non-existent. But people here are fanatical about soccer and rugby, the first full match of the latter of which I had the pleasure to watch the night Scotland won an upset victory over international powerhouse Australia for the first time in a generation. Professional soccer, or football as they call it pretty much everywhere else in the world except the USA, has the sort of drama and larger-than-life personalities in the UK that one expects from the NBA or the NFL, the connection with national identity of MLB, and the fanatical fanbase of the NHL. I like it here.

The first Sunday we attended the church we ended up making our home, Buccleuch and Greyfriars Free Church of Scotland, I was quick to observe that they had a group of guys who played soccer on Thursday nights. I'm afraid I have to admit that this was a major factor in my decision to keep attending Buccleuch. Obviously, my attachment to the church is much deeper than that, but soccer on Thursday nights was a catalyst like a pretty face in beginning a deeper relationship. In other words, it was love at first sight.

The only way it could be better, in my opinion, is if it were a full 11 on 11 on an outdoor pitch for 90 minutes. Instead, we play 8 on 8 on an indoor 7 on 7 field for 60 minutes. Until recently, the shorter game length was critical for my survival. The first several games were positively embarrassing. I played okay, but my muscles quickly tired, I wasn't very quick to a contested balls, my cardiovascular conditioning was pathetic, and I even had trouble chipping the %*&$# ball. I knew I was in bad shape, because the last time I had even kicked a ball with my sister I had pulled a hip flexor, which is not fun to say the least. But I stuck with it, because despite my poor conditioning I felt like a part of me that had been missing was back. Part of my reason for getting involved in ballroom dancing was to find something physical to do to replace soccer. Unfortunately, all it ended up doing was creating a new favorite and irreplaceable physical hobby. Joy is starting to get expensive.

Beyond my expectations, my physical conditioning has returned in what appears to be full force. I don't know if I am as fast as I used to be, because the field is small enough that I haven't had a chance to get up to a full sprint yet. But my leg muscles appear to be close to as quick and strong as they used to be. My ball handling skills are returning (and with them the confidence that enables one to see the field creatively), sometimes surprisingly well. My left leg (the weak one) is at least as strong and accurate as it was in high school, maybe more, which is shocking. And best of all, last Thursday when the game ended I was stoked to realize that I felt good enough to go another hour, and that is not an exaggeration; it is an honest assessment of my leg and lung condition.

I honestly think that this opportunity to play soccer on a regular basis is an intentional and multi-faceted blessing from God. The physical exertion has been instrumental in helping me to be physically and emotionally in good health during what is in many ways the hardest time in my life. I feel and look better, and the stress relief helps me to think clearly, and thinking is a huge part of my job description right now.

Perhaps even more importantly, it helps Edinburgh feel like home, a feeling which, I've come to realize, is not actually tied to a particular place. Anyone who has moved somewhere and grown can tell you that even though you return physically to the place called “home”, it's never really the same. Those nostalgic memories instead become a set of ideals, a vague sense of safety and happiness which we call home, but which we seem unable on our own to recover. I know the sad reality of the saying that “you can never go home again.” But God is good. Sometimes when you leave “home” for his sake, true home finds you in the strangest places.