With two major soccer tournaments taking place this summer, the European Championships in June (held in Poland and the Ukraine) and the UK Olympics in July, the game’s global profile will never be greater. In New York City alone, over 50 bars will be showing the matches to fans from around the world. These days, however, I find watching soccer almost as painful as I once did playing it.
“You’re going to be a father, not a footballer!” shouted my heavily pregnant wife, a newly registered nurse, after I mentioned the idea of playing soccer again, eight years ago. “If you go back out there and play, don’t expect me to visit you in the hospital.”
It was a refrain I’d heard almost two decades before from my mother in London, when I arrived home on crutches. After five surgeries on the same right knee, including two ACL reconstructions and three meniscus repairs, my wife laid down an ultimatum. Some people are serial adulterers, others drug users, but I was a serial soccer player. Now I had to try and go cold turkey.
Like many Brits, I grew up soccer-mad, with hopes of turning professional. I spent most of my childhood kicking a ball and being carted by my tireless parents to games.
Alas, I never turned pro, but it was so ingrained into my life and psyche that by the time I moved to New York at 25, I staved off homesickness by hanging out with a core group of soccer-crazy expats. Most of them worked in finance, but as freelance journalist, I had neither medical insurance nor money. They all lived in stylish apartments or sweeping suburban homes, while I slept on a futon in a rented walk-up in Prospect Heights.
When I first felt the searing pain in my right knee on a soccer field in New Jersey in 1997, I didn’t know then that my torn ACL would affect the way I’d watch the game. A bad surgery in my native United Kingdom and string of further injuries threatened to permanently derail my soccer playing days at the age of 35.
“You’ve put my kids through college,” joked my New York-based surgeon from his plush offices on Beekman Street near the Financial District when I saw him for what would be my final MRI scan. “You’d be crazy to step on the soccer field again.”
It was soul-crushing after planning my life around the next game, training and rehab. With my wife about to give birth, I imagined myself sneaking out to play soccer, the way some men sneak out to the bar or to see their mistress. She reiterated her stance, telling me, “I’m not about to start teaching two people how to walk”.
The birth of our second daughter in 2007 firmly extinguished any embers of hope I had of trotting back out onto the field as my life was transformed into a cyclone of dirty diapers, sleepless nights and rushing out to buy formula.
Though I now diligently swim laps and lift weights, there is a huge void in my life. The adrenalin of running out onto a soccer pitch, charging around and screaming to 10 other teammates cannot be matched. Now my girls are 4 and 6, the same age as I started playing, the embers are starting to rekindle.
I take them out regularly to Prospect Park with a soccer ball, praying for the spark of attraction to leap from the ball to their soul the way it did with me. When I start playing with them, I feel my touch start to return. At 43, I’m still in good shape but my war-torn knee, which crunches and clicks like a clockmaker’s repair room, couldn’t stand it.
My wife thinks I’m totally cured of my old ways and would be shocked to know that I still pine for my first love. I’ll watch the games this summer, and if you happen to be in a downtown bar watching England play and you see an Indian-looking guy kick an imaginary ball, willing them to score, before clutching his right knee and wincing in pain, that’ll be me.
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