Soccer has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From the moment my father dressed me in my first Bayern Munich t-shirt, I could not get enough. My childhood years were filled with games and team fundraisers and my teenage years filled with tournaments and travel throughout the United States. In college, I am captain of my soccer team and my love for the game is a major part of my life.
My summer abroad in London was my first summer away from home. As a result, this was also my first summer not being part of a soccer team. A typical summer day usually consisted of me waking up early, while my friends were still asleep, to run sprints at my local high school. I was used to missing summertime parties with my friends for soccer practices or games that ran into overtime. My free time was spent soccer training little girls at a nearby park. A summer without soccer was going to be tough.
To make matters worse, once I arrived in London soccer was everywhere. It was shocking to open up the London Times on the tube to see “ football” all over the sports section. In America, it was common to find soccer pushed into a little paragraph in the lower corner of the sports section. I could not believe my eyes when soccer appeared on two of the five televisions at the central YMCA. The amount of people I saw each day in soccer jerseys and the amount of talk I overheard about soccer players being traded within the English premier league was overwhelming to me. I wanted to play soccer more than I ever had in my life, yet I had no team to play on.
One day on the tube I overheard a young man talking about a recent game of pick up soccer that he played in Hyde Park. That was all I needed to hear. That afternoon I decided to venture on my own to Hyde Park. Around dinner time I caught the 19 bus which happened to stop at Hyde Park Corner. After a fifteen minute ride, I hopped off the bus and entered what I thought would be an average park in central London. Immediately I was overwhelmed by a park that seemed to be never ending. The beautiful smell of gardens blooming with flowers, the calming sound of people paddle boating on the river and the sight of bright green grass and striped chairs overwhelmed me.
But right away something in the distance caught my eye. I could not take my glance away from all the soccer balls being kicked around. I attend college in New York City and it would be surprising to find more than one soccer ball in all of Central Park (aside from the one my teammates and I brought there ourselves). But here in London, there were games going on in every direction I looked.
A sense of desire overcame me; I wanted to play.
At first I was nervous about asking a large group of unfamiliar men if I could play soccer with them. There were no girls playing in the park and I feared that they might not want to let me play. I settled for a group of five boys off in the corner that looked as if they needed a sixth player. I was slightly anxious approaching them but they were enthusiastic about letting me join. Turns out, the men I played with that day in London were not Englishmen at all. They were French and although they barely knew English, they understood the language of soccer and that was all that mattered.
After playing in the park for two hours that evening, I began making visits to the park often to play. I would go for a run around the park, but my real intention was to observe the games going on and figure out where an extra player was needed. There was always a bit of nervousness in my stomach as I approached the men and asked to join in on their game of “football” and there was often hesitance in their response when they decided to let me play. One thing I learned from living in London was that many more men play soccer there than women.
At first they would take it easy on me, giving me extra time before they tried to steal the ball from me. Some were afraid to go their hardest against me for fear that I might get hurt. It was not until I was in the midst of a close game with a group of Spanish men that things began to change.
As I was dribbling the ball up the field (or pitch as I later learned to call it) a man came from behind and tackled me. Used to being fouled from behind in college soccer, I quickly got up and continued to play. He apologized profusely for the foul, to which I responded “Foul? What foul?” That was all it took for the men to realize that even though I was a girl, I was still a soccer player. Let’s just say that the remainder of the game was much tougher than the start.
Soon it became routine for me to go to the park. I would carry my soccer cleats in a backpack to class and would take the tube straight from class to the park. I would play until it got dark or until my hunger got the best of me. I played with the typical English men who always dressed to impress, in a jersey of their favorite footballer with dreams of one day playing in the Premier League. I played with Australian men traveling through London on holiday that preferred rugby but developed a liking to soccer. I played with Spaniards whose passion for the sport was unmatched, cursing at their own teammates when a goal was scored against them. One time I even played with a group of forty year old men.
Not before long, I began to become known in the park. I made a friend from London who attended Harvard University. I would meet up with him at the park since it was easier to join a pickup game with another person to keep the numbers even.
I learned that soccer in London is more than just a sport. It is a part of life. It was soccer that made my assimilation to life in London a lot easier. Soccer is universal; something any person can relate to. The nervous feeling that arises in your stomach before the game, the burst of adrenaline felt after a goal is scored and the feelings of defeat are all feelings shared by those who play soccer. My experiences playing soccer in the park taught me that although there were cultural barriers and differences, there are universal things that bring people together. It was a common love for soccer or “footie” as my new friends often called it, which made me feel at home in London.