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On Friday, when Sylvie and I were paying the guys for the week, Eloy, our maestro, asked me if I played soccer. I said that I had dabbled a bit a few years ago, but that I was bad, especially when compared to guys who’ve been playing the game since they were able to walk. He then asked me if I wanted to play in one of the games on Saturday. I repeated again, that I was “malo”, and that there was really no place for me on soccer field during a competitive game. He said, “no, it’s no big deal. It’s just for fun.” Curious, I said “yeah, really?” And again he assured me that no one involved cared the least little bit about the result of the game. Now, mind you, my Spidey senses were tingling, but I was a little bit interested to see how I would stack up against these guys. I mean, I consider myself a decent athlete. And I had played pretty well back in Philly during those friendly, co-ed pick up games. I’d never played with regulation-sized goals before, but then again that might be advantage.
So, the next morning I’m practicing with our 6-year old neighbor Ariel, who was actually pretty decent. He could be counted on to kick the ball straight every time. He could return the ball to you off a bounce. He was also pretty good at chasing it down. “Hmmm, this kid’s pretty good. Lucky me, I actually get to practice a bit.” Of course, Ariel’s proficiency should have probably served as some sort of warning. Hey, all I knew was that I had to be at the field by 1:30pm.
As we hopped off the pick up truck in Dos Mangas I saw the crowd of people sitting watching the game currently in action. I noticed the covered tents filled with people in their lawn chairs. I saw a couple of coolers. I saw the vendors selling water ice, food, drinks. I saw a group of people sitting isolated behind one of the goals. These were the fans of the team from the neighboring town that had come to play vs. one of Dos Mangas four teams. They were heckling the officials. I noticed the nice, numbered and named uniforms both teams were wearing. There was a band. The only thing missing was a step show. At the end of the games trophies were handed out.
So, now I’m ready to soil myself. I pray and hope that Eloy and the guys were just talking mess; that they didn’t really expect me to play. They had even asked if our friend Chin-Yee wanted to play, and he wasn’t even there. So clearly, rock-solid commitments were not mandatory. As I nervously waited, our friend Manuel comes over to greets us and to introduce his father who was very slick with his gold chain, crisply pressed slacks and full head of gray hair. Manuel asked me if I was ready to play. Not only did I not want to play, I didn’t want to leave Sylvie alone with Manuel Sr. either. Within 15 minutes I’m in my uniform walking over to where the team is warming up. Not only am I clearly not from Dos Mangas, I’m the only guy wearing dark blue shorts instead of royal blue. Not only am I half a foot taller than the other players, but Manuel’s wife decides to give the PA announcer my name. So, while I’m whiffing balls far wide of a humongous goal during practice, I’ve got a guy sitting on a chair with a microphone shouting “Umi…..Umi, Umi, Umi, Umi, Umi !!!!!!!!!!!!” for the crowd of hundreds assembled at this sports complex. By the way, no one else in Dos Mangas is named Umi. Behind the PA announcer is a group of about 7 women cheerleader chanting my name. A couple of them have 3-liter Coke bottles filled with ice that they shake as they scream U-ME..U-ME..U-ME...
I’m not someone who likes a lot of attention. So playing a sport I barely know that happens to be the Ecuadorian national pastime in front of a crowd of three hundred commentators representing the pride of an entire community while my name is chanted incessantly for 90 minutes is not what I had in mind for my Saturday afternoon. Plus, on a deeper level, I have a thing about letting people down. It’s one of my worst fears. It’s up there with being buried alive. So, I’m feeling the pressure so to speak. And I’m missing the goal during practice, and praying to my God that I don’t have to actually play.
After our team gets announced, and we run out on to the field to the crowd’s applause, we get our picture taken. After that every one sort of stays in place and starts bending and shaking their legs the way players do before a game is about to start. So, I’m on the field wiggling my ankle a little bit scanning the sidelines for my salvation. It comes from our stern-looking goalie who nods in the direction of the bench. God is good and God is great. However, as I walk over to the “bench” (a log on the ground), I hear my name. I didn’t understand everything he was saying because he was using the Spanish soccer announcer pace for his ramblings, but I understood “Umi, come talk to the madrina…Don’t just stand there… She is waiting.” So, I look and see the madrina (basically she’s the beauty queen representative for our team) standing there looking at me, looking away, blushing. And, she’s got 5 or so girls around her looking at me, motioning for me to come stand next to her. She’s got a sash and everything. You see, not only does Dos Mangas have the bravest men, but also the most beautiful women. So, now I’m standing awkwardly by the bench wanting to sit down, but unable to ignore this horrific situation. As I said before, I hate being put on the spot. All types of thoughts flashed through my head. Will the people watching be offended if I reject talking to their madrina? Will I hurt her feelings by not even playing along? Will the PA announcer turn on me and start insulting me through his loudspeaker for the crowd’s enjoyment. In the end, I sat on the bench and hoped for minimal fall out. Sylvie was over on the other side of the field, doing everything she could to fight the nausea of morning sickness while sitting in 90 degree heat. I just couldn’t risk any misinterpretation or hurt feelings. Gotta take care of home first.
Fortunately, the people of Dos Mangas are forgiving and patient people. I blocked out the PA announcer and wasn’t hit with any ice. Eloy, the guy who invited me to play on his team, didn’t arrive until halftime. Fortunately, my number didn’t get called. Here, I thought I’d be playing in a friendly pick up game. Turns out, I had to practice with a complete bunch of strangers who all seemed to be wondering what the hell I was doing in one of their uniforms. I was a ringer, but instead of being the best player on the team, I was the worst. This made no sense to anyone, especially me. So, during the second half Eloy walks over to me and says it’s time to go in. I say “are you sure?!” He says “yes”. I say, “no wait, I can’t”. I’m begging at this point like a kid who doesn’t want his mommy to leave him on the first day of school. I tell him we can swap clothes so he can play. He’s damn-near dragging me by the arm over to the field and telling the ref I’m replacing number 12. I say “what, he’s one of our best players!!” Eloy says “no importa”. So I check in to the game. “U-ME, U-ME, U-ME!!” Honestly, I didn’t play that horribly. Once I got out there I just ran hard and tried not to mess up. I did at some point change positions from offense to defense. I probably should’ve asked or communicated to a teammate about that one, but hey, what’s done is done. I had the ball come my way a few times. I did decent things a couple of times with the ball. Unfortunately, my final touch of the ball led to a goal. The ball came to me on our side of the field. I turned upfield and looked to pass. An opposing player stole the ball, passed it to a teammate and his teammate made a goal. The bad part: it made the game 5-4 with 2 minutes left. I was quickly taken out of the game as my team tried to score the tying goal, but by the time I got to the bench the final whistle was being blown. I think I blew the only chance Dos Mangas had all day to at least tie a game. I haven’t yet fully processed that fact or its ramifications. Nor, have I forgiven myself. It could take years to deal with this trauma. I’m scared to go into Dos Mangas without protection. Here I was trying to have a good ole’ fashioned cross-cultural experience and I think I need a therapist to help me deal with everything that transpired.