Our love of sport is organic. It grows from our soul, an extension of who we are. We support the teams from our hometowns, home cities, home states. We inherit our fandom from our parents, just as we do the color of our eyes.
As we grow from children to adults, our sporting passions wax and wane with the phases of our lives. Players come and go, franchises rise and fall, and our tastes change as we gain a grown-up's understanding of what happens on and off the field. The sports, teams, and athletes who appealed to us as children may become lifelong devotions, casual distractions, or boxed up and put in our emotional attic with the rest of our toys.
My new-found love of soccer is not organic. It is digital, virtual. Artificial. On a whim, I decided to follow the the 2010 World Cup and became hopelessly addicted. The competition, the colors, the joy, the glory, the incredible skill, the hypnotic drone of the vuvuzela and yes—this goal.
I devoured all the soccer information the Internet could feed me. I tried to make up for a lifetime of ignorance with websites, blogs, podcasts, Twitter, high-numbered premium satellite channels and online match feeds. I jacked myself into the world footballing matrix, the global community of soccer digitally streaming into my brain through my optic nerves.
I became a rabid US Men's national team supporter. I picked an English club side to follow (Liverpool). I swore to remain neutral vis-à-vis MLS until Detroit gets a top-flight side. I coached my children's elementary school soccer team. I watched the USMNT defeat Canada in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. I saw my favorite player, Clint Dempsey, score a goal before my eyes. I started playing FIFA12 like a maniac. The lines between illusion and reality started to blur.
Still, I felt like a tourist, pretender, a Yankee in King Kenny's court. I will likely never see Liverpool play live, almost certainly never sing in the Kop. I have a "favorite player," which is incongruous with being a 30-year-old sports fan. Almost daily, I find out something every real soccer fan was apparently born knowing.
Recently, during a marathon FIFA session, it dawned on me: like George F. Will I could "drink deep the aura of the game," but I would never really be a soccer fan if I didn't play soccer.
Days later, I stood outside my local indoor soccer facility, petrified. A young lifetime of broken glasses and being picked last gave me pause before I went in. But in I went, paid my five dollars, and got my wristband. I summoned my courage, headed for the field, and—oh.
Of the nearly twenty there, I was one of two not ethnically Hispanic. In mid-Michigan, this is demographically atypical. Having no clue how drop-in soccer works, never even having shot on goal in anger, I was about to take the pitch for the first time not knowing the only language any of other players were speaking.
Social anxiety meter pegged, I grasped the handle of the bench door. Thin and curved like an old Westinghouse refrigerator's, it opened out rather than in and I bumped into it like a fool. On the second attempt I succeeded, and my mesh running shoes soon settled with a crunch into the artificial grass.
Everyone was kicking around, in solos, pairs and trios. I made a pair a trio and tried not to embarrass myself. I nervously scanned the field, searching for a clue of what to do. The only other Anglo caught my panicked eyes, walked over and extended a friendly hand.
"Hi, I'm Nohmun," he said. Norman*, in fact, but his obviously-not-from-around-here accent pegged him as a North Atlantic expatriate. I told him I'd never played before. He shrugged it off, told me I'd do fine, and suddenly everyone was shooting.
Without a word, the kick-around turned into a firing line; everyone took turns shooting on their side's goalie. I tried to stay out of the way, but a ball was rolled to my feet and eyebrows were raised. I took a shot on goal, and I shanked it badly.
"AGH," I grunted in frustration, as if that was not the same thing that had always happened every time I'd ever kicked a soccer ball in my entire life. I watched the others, I studied their form. When it was my turn again, I wound up, released, and whoa.
The ball hit the instep of my foot just right, and my leg resonated in sympathy with the impact of the strike. The ball curled up toward the top left corner, almost like I'd done it on purpose. The lanky kid in goal had no trouble with it, but I took heart.
I was handed a red pinnie, and I noticed all the balls but one had been removed from the field. I instinctively moved toward the back line, and with a gesture I was instructed to mark the "old guy who is shockingly good."
Comfortingly, all the archetypes from every other adult-rec sport had come out: "Takes it too seriously" guy, "Brand-new authentic jersey" guy, "Hey that's a fou"l guy, The kid, etc. Norman was incredibly skilled, his technique and foot craft several notches above everyone else on the field. Old guy was running me ragged, though, and made me look like an idiot on more than one occasion. Every time I took a touch, my newbie status became more and more obvious.
Passes stopped coming my way, except when the opposing team was passing to Old guy. Norman and one of my teammates started giving me tips on fundamentals when the ball was at the other end. The bad old feelings of middle school playgrounds were bubbling within me, but I swallowed them back down and played on.
I started to drift forward into the midfield, at first to support my teammates on offense and then because somebody else volunteered to mark Old Guy in my gasping, winded stead. I started to feel more comfortable, moving back and forth with the run of play.
I heard two guys on the nearby bench talking about Liverpool**, and I grinned. I saw other players make mistakes, always triggering a round of laughs from everyone involved. I laughed, too, my own howlers just helping me feel like I belonged. I ran hard, I won balls, and the passes started coming my way again. I kept creeping forward.
After almost an hour, it happened. Norman and I found ourselves on a 2-on-1 break, flying at full sprint down the field. Norman pushed the ball down the middle, the only defender backpedaling in front of him. I was in lockstep on his left, wind rushing past me, shoes barely touching the turf.
The defender wasn't concerned with me, he was stopping Norman at all costs. I knew the right move was to pass it to me, but I didn't know if Norman would be willing. As we blew past midfield, I looked his way and he was.
"Shoot it," he grunted with a flick of his left outsole, and as the ball glided towards a spot just in front of me, time slowed. The real and the virtual merged. The grass and ball bits and bytes and 0s and 1s flowed in front of me. I heard Martin Tyler's voice talking about putting your laces through it and I knew I couldn't risk taking a touch, I just had to bury it. With an open net and an open shot and a perfect ball right in front of me, I pressed my circle button.
Indoor soccer arenas are a Frankenstein's Monster of hockey and soccer venues. With white boards and acrylic glass all around, and netting around and above, the fake grass could just as easily be fake ice. Adding wall and corner play to The Beautiful Game might make it less aesthetically pleasing, but indoor soccer has one huge advantage over the open-air version.
When you rip a perfect shot past a goalie who never dreamed you'd take it from there, the ball slams into the back of the net which is also a wall, and the whole place booms with a shockingly real thud more authentic and satisfying than a thousand PlayStation Anfields singing your virtual praises.
*Norman turned out to be an astonishingly well-credentialed player and coach, with stints in the Irish Premier League and a grip of US Soccer licenses and credentials.
**Actually, they were calling me "Liverpool." Turns out, my Andy Carrollesque ponytail earned me my very own streetball nickname, and it just happens to be the club I support. How real is that?