Published in the Canadian Immigrant, August 30, 2011
The ball hovers by and hits the hard, dry ground a few metres behind the last man. Two players, one from each team, start running. A frantic race ensues as defender and forward sprint to claim the ball. So intent are they on winning the race, they fail to see two other players heading to the same ball downfield. These other two, however, seem more interested in their conversation than the play that is unfolding.
The rest of us, far from the action, stop to watch this curious scene take place. The soccer ball trickles to a stop and the space between the intense players on one end, and the coffee house conversationalists on the other, rapidly narrows.
“What are those two doing?” says somebody from our group, referring to the two gabbers.
“I think they’re talking,” replies another.
When the two runners converge on the ball, they hesitate and finally stop. Confused, they watch as the two talkers ignore the ball. For a fleeting moment no one moves.
We start yelling at them to keep the play alive and the two players nearest to the ball remember that they are each other’s opponents and, so, reach for the ball.
The talkers, meanwhile, amble over to the side of the pitch to continue their conversation. And so — bizarre situation aside — the game goes on.
“Oh, man, this isn’t calcio,” bellows Elio Brunetti, using his native Italian word for the beautiful game. “This is piazza!”
Welcome to Waterloo Park — where “beauty” more accurately describes the joy with which we play soccer than it does our collective ability to produce aesthetic, scintillating soccer.
Welcome to this sun-scorched and pockmarked field, where the place you’re from is as unimportant as the number of goals you score … but every bit as interesting.
It was the spring of 2006 when I first moved to Waterloo, Ontario. Among the first things I did when I arrived was scour the neighborhood in search of people playing soccer. It had been a long winter and I was burning to play. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I saw a group playing at a public park near the University of Waterloo.
My heart started racing and, like an excited child, I hurriedly laced up my boots and ran to the field. I watched and waited for a pause in the play and asked if I could join the action. I was welcomed warmly by a large group of players and told to join the team whose shirts mine matched. That, I soon learned, was how it was done in Waterloo Park.
“Playing at Waterloo Park was like playing with your childhood friends. You didn’t have to announce that you were playing, much less introduce yourself. You simply entered the field. All of a sudden, you received the ball from someone wearing a shirt with a similar colour to yours and instantly, you were one more player,” says Miguel Madrid, a Chilean-Venezuelan fanatic of all things soccer.
By the weekend following my first game, I was a regular. I had enjoyed playing with people with whom, it seemed, I shared a mutual ability and vision of soccer. I was the “new guy,” and yet people were generous with their passes; they read my ideas and often anticipated them and we connected for some pretty plays. In a soccer sense, there was good understanding.
Certainly, with people who had come from a long list of countries — Somalia, Syria, Lebanon, Nigeria, Angola, Italy, El Salvador, Chile, Ethiopia, China, to name a few — the mix of soccer styles seen on the pitch was eclectic. And, yet, we all understood the same language.
“Soccer is what unified everybody,” says Carlos Timoteo, who grew up playing soccer as a youngster in Angola. “Every single person who showed up down there loves soccer.”
Impressed with the level of play and the welcoming nature of everyone involved, I returned the following week.
There were few rules at Waterloo Park: there were no off-sides and the teams were selected according to shirt colour. Kilian, well into his 60s, who had come from Austria decades earlier, and who had been among the pioneers of these informal games back in the early 1980s, brought the game ball and the homemade goal flags that were used when the size of the field was altered according to the number of players present.
Despite the fact that he was much older than most of us, he was the most devoted player.
There were no time limits to our matches; we played for as long as the waning light allowed us to see, and sometimes even longer.
There were no referees, but that didn’t seem to matter: we relied on the honour system. Even on those hot, humid summer days so typical of southwestern Ontario, when the heat often made people do strange things, or when a reckless tackle was instead interpreted as malicious, cooler heads always prevailed.
“People are relaxed, they’re laughing, they’re joking,” says Sam Hajjar, a first-generation Canadian born of Lebanese and Armenian parents. “There was synergy between all the people … It’s like a getaway for me,” says Hajjar, one of the few players to boast the presence, on more than one occasion, of his own personal fans — mother, father, wife and children in tow.
I soon learned that what kept me — and many others — coming back to the same field was not just the soccer — it was the people. Everyone was so different and yet we all shared so much.
By returning every weekend, and often playing three nights in a row – a schedule not easy on the older players – we came to know each other well.
“That’s what makes you stay, because it’s not just soccer anymore now — it’s a friendship,” says Timoteo, a regular since 2001.
Even on those chaotic days that the field was so crowded with players that you managed to touch the ball just once every half hour, there was laughter to temper your frustration.
“It was like a [soccer] stadium inside out; more people on the field than in the stands,” remembers Madrid.
That’s a far cry from how it all started decades earlier when the weekly sessions drew just a few players.
“When we started nobody was there. The net and everything was there but nobody used it and we put it up Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” says Cuong Truong, a Chinese-Vietnamese player and one of the 1980s originals.
In the 1990s, organized bookings forced the players off the field and so games were moved over to the weekends. It has stuck ever since.
You could always count on getting your fair share of laughter when you came to the park. And this, says Hajjar, allowed people to flourish not only as players, but as individuals.
“It brings out the individuality of people. As much as it brings the culture of people … you also see people’s individuality come out.”
Certainly, there were a lot of characters.
There was Mohamed, who, despite his middle age, was nearly unstoppable when burrowing down the wing, head down like a bull, before releasing his trademark cross; there was Wilfred, who took forever to warm up and who celebrated his every goal with his arms spread wide like wings; there was Moamin, who at 16, possessed the skills, technical ability, maturity and generosity with the ball that players 10 years his senior could only have dreamed of having; there was Karl, the Dutch gentleman in his early 70s, who often exhibited flashes of a talented youth, and who, along with Kilian, had seen three decades of players come through the field; there was Darwazeh, who thanked his opponent every time he robbed him of the ball; and there was Massimo, who having once forgotten to bring his shorts, shed his long pants and played in his underwear.
There were nicknames, too. Some people, naturally, assumed the names of the soccer stars they bore on the backs of their shirts. Others, with a healthy dose of irony, became known for the superstar players whose style of play they would never, not even in their dreams, emulate.
“There was a lot of talk, too, about people’s backgrounds, where they came from. We talk about everything down there: religion, politics, partying — everything,” says Timoteo.
Indeed, sometimes there was too much talking. For some reason, throw-ins — in particular, to which team they belonged — were among the most bitterly disputed topics. Neither religion nor politics seemed to spark such vociferous debate.
All of these antics and simple pleasures made the countdown to Friday evening the highlight of my week. As Madrid recalls, the intensity of this feeling multiplied when the wait between games was drawn out by a long and cold winter.
“Seeing the guys at Waterloo Park after almost a whole year was like seeing your schoolmates after vacation, or seeing your family at Christmas. Truth is, I really miss it,” says Madrid, who hasn’t experienced the same type of soccer since moving to Ottawa.
The banter and the camaraderie that came with playing with the same people every weekend led to friendships that continue today, despite the fact that many people have moved away. But other newcomers join. “If there’s good weather and they see people playing, then, slowly, they come out.”
I, too, like Madrid, have moved from Waterloo. And while I play soccer in Vancouver, I have not yet discovered an informal league to replicate my experience there. Waterloo Park is but a distant, magical memory.