At first we didn’t even know how to greet each other. From a distance, or with a handshake? With the mask on or off? My Argentine friends, who usually kiss on the cheek, had it even more complicated.
And so we had a range of greetings, based on the level of fear. First of the Delta variant and now of the Omicron. If the coronavirus had hit close to home, the greetings were even more distant. You don’t play around with death.
After more than a year of not playing our usual Saturday morning soccer games because of the pandemic, the vaccines and boosters available to anyone who wants it in the United States allowed us to return to the field. That was the signal I was waiting for, to take back a littler bit of normalcy and happiness.
We are an old group of about 50 friends who put on our tacos – that’s what we call soccer shoes in Mexico – and shorts without fail each week to remember our youth. Almost all of us were born in Latin America and played soccer since childhood. That Saturday ritual brings back a little of what we left behind.
Since 2003 we have been playing in what we call the Golden League in a Miami park. That word Golden is not about our brilliant play but about our golden years. But after playing as children on the streets and fields with rocks and mud, and scraped knees, it is a first-world luxury to kick a ball on a pitch with artificial turf, uniforms and a referee who whistles penalties for kicks and trips, strictly forbidden to protect the skin and bones and allow us to go to work on Monday.
The minutes before the match smell like an emergency room, with magical potions and rejuvenating creams. One friend used to bring a cream for cows that yanked some of the injured out of the bench. But we are not immune to time. We lost a friend to a heart attack, and recently another was saved when he was rushed to the emergency room after an especially hot day. Yes, soccer almost killed him.
But it did not kill him. Or the others in the group. Soccer, in some way, saved us. There’s something therapeutic and restorative in chasing a ball for 90 minutes in the hope of kicking it the goal. The salvation is in the intensity we devote to something so absurd and useless. It is homo ludens.
Besides, it’s impossible to find another sport that is so simple, has so many players and has the same global impact. Portuguese player Ronaldo cost Coca Cola stock to lose $4 billion last summer when he passed up two bottles of the soft drink for a bottle of water.
What’s more, soccer has the power to change the habits of a country. Or try to. FIFA sanctioned the Mexican team for the homophobic chants of its fans. They switched to chanting Mexico! But the prejudices and foolishness soon returned and the Mexican team was punished to play two games without spectators. In the worst of cases, Mexico could be disqualified from the next World Cup and perhaps even lose its role as co-host of the 2026 Cup, along with the United States and Canada.
It has been said that soccer is the most important thing among the least important things. But after the worst of the pandemic, for me it has been an example of how life renews itself. My friends and I have returned to our Saturday futbolito – the first 22 who get there get to play. And even though everything seems to be the same since 2019, the trauma of the pandemic has changed us. There is more gray hair, more fears, a better appreciation for life and a recognition of how ephemeral it it. I sense a happiness in the shouts, the jokes and the kicks that tastes of something new.
New York Times journalist Carl Zimmer wrote that in 1992, a group of NASA scientists gathered to search for a definition of life. And they found it. “Life is a self-sustaining chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.”
That definition of life, so removed from religion and myths, is a marvel of synthesis. The goal of life is simply to live it. Not to go to heaven or hell. (If you ever want to get into an argument, I suggest you take up that issue.)
But today I wanted to talk about soccer, and how we have been forced to adapt after more than 5 million dead from coronavirus around the planet. It is life reinventing itself, and looking for little gaps where it can thrive and reproduce. In the case of Covid-19, it was a fight to the death, us against the virus. Eventually, I believe we will wind up accepting it, because it will not disappear completely.
While almost everyone I know in the United States has been vaccinated, there are many countries where millions are waiting their turn. It is, I know, totally unjust. But the economic power of the United States – which produces many more vaccines than necessary – allowed my friends and I to return to the soccer field. We are lucky.
I scored a goal in the last match. Something unusual. And my friends celebrated like it was a World Cup victory. I heard their laughter, felt the sun in my face and I knew that this time we had won. We were alive.