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If God Existed, He’d Be a Solid Midfielder

If God Existed, he’d be a solid midfielder.

‘So this, ladies and gentlemen, is what this little narrative is about: the rare moment of transcendence that might be familiar to those who play sport with other people; the moment, arising from the chaos of the game, when all your teammates occupy an ideal position on the field; the moment when the universe seems to be arranged by a meaningful will that is not yours; the moment that perishes (as moments tend to do) when you complete a pass. And all you are left with is a vague, physical orgasmic memory of the evanescent instant when you were completely connected with everything and everyone around you.’
Aleksandar Hemon

If god existed he'd be a solid midfielder. book jacket

With a truncated MLS schedule and no matches in the major European leagues, the international break is often a welcome respite from the weekly grind of watching soccer for hours on end, providing an opportunity to spend weekend mornings getting some fresh air at your local park or farmer’s market.

With Scotland losing three-nil to Kazakhstan and the U.S. playing a meaningless friendly against Ecuador, the break provided an even better excuse to get away from the television and spend some time reading…about soccer of course.

‘If God Existed, He’d Be a Solid Midfielder,’ appears in his excellent collection titled The Book of My Lives. It is not the most engaging essay in the book for there are some tremendous pieces that draw the reader into Hemon’s world as a Bosnian refugee coming of age in the U.S. while a brutal civil war raged in his homeland. The essay does not necessarily evoke the most emotion from any piece in the collection. For that the reader would be better off with ‘The Aquarium,’ where Hemon describes the singular pain of losing a young child to a brain tumor.

One Of The Finest Piece Of Soccer Writing

But, ‘If God Existed, He’d Be a Solid Midfielder,’ may just be one of the finest pieces of writing about soccer. That is not to say that books such as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s collection of letters to his fellow author Fredrik Ekelund titled Home and Away are not engaging works about the beautiful game. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro is a romantic portrayal of lower level of Italian soccer that would make Maurizio Sarri smile.

In Hemon’s brilliantly titled essay, though, he is able to distill a game that is played in every corner of the world, by billions of people from the richest athletes to the poorest laborers, into one game, or series of games, played at a park in Chicago. Hemon captures the beauty of the game’s ability to bring people together and the impact the communal aspects of the sport can have on the soul.

The piece begins with an out-of-shape young man rueing not playing soccer in the U.S. after it had been such a significant part of his identity while in Bosnia. Hemon writes, ‘Not playing soccer tormented me. I didn’t really care about being healthy as I was still young enough for me playing soccer was closely related to being fully alive.’

One wonders how many people in the world, from the professional to the weekend pub team player would describe the sport with the same sentiment.

Defining The Beautiful Game

Hemon goes on to describe the game. A weekly pick-up match organized by a formerly alcoholic, religiously zealous Ecuadorian named German. Players are known not by their names, but often by their country of origin. Hemon, or ‘Bosnia’, describes playing in midfield with ‘Romania’ and ‘Colombia’. What becomes clear from the essay is that the game held an important place for the players. Most of the players were immigrants working hard to stay afloat in the country and the game gave them a sense of being part of something bigger.

In the climactic moment, Hemon describes German’s generous vision of life and a vicious rain storm that follows. The players are scattered – under a tree, in a van and running through puddles scoring goals. The scene leads to Hemon’s revelation about the rare moment of transcendence that occurs when playing football.

It is difficult to put down into words what it is that makes soccer the beautiful game. A highlight of Paul Gascoigne’s audacious goal in Euro 1996 against Scotland captures the essence of it, as would Rivaldo’s bicycle kick against Valencia in La Liga in 2001 or images of Messi gliding gracefully past defenders. At the same time, though, the sport is so much more than those moments. It is the conversations before and after games’ on fields or on bar stools. Also, it is the community the sport provides and, as Hemon so eloquently writes, ‘it is often vague, physical orgasmic memory of the evanescent instant when you were completely connected with everything and everyone around you.’

By Greg McKay
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