A Young Lad Learns A New Game

by Robert Bestor

Way, way back. Back when it was hard to find out what was going on on the other side of town, let alone the other side of the world. Back before cable TV even, on our first day of 4th grade, my good buddy Kevin Afonso announced, “My dad taught me a great game over the summer. It’s called soccer.” And after a quick explanation of the rules (which were pretty simple then, and are still simple now), our group of football and baseball mad hellions played soccer at every recess, every day, for the next three years of grade school. 

For several of us this led to youth teams and high school teams. It turned me into a lifelong player, which included a long stint playing in a Sunday morning pick-up game with players from all over the world. The small handful of us who were not from far off lands referred to them as “contingents.” There was the German Contingent, the African Contingent, the British Contingent, the Middle Eastern Contingent, the Hungarian Contingent, and more. The origins of this pick-up game are unknown to me, but it was sustained by carloads of Contingents who showed up every Sunday to play. 

It was a remarkable weekly meeting that, along with other sporting experiences and endeavors, certainly piqued my interest in the world outside of Hayward, California. I distinctly recall watching a marathon, likely on Wide World of Sports, that featured a runner who the announcers referred to as “the mystery man from Djibouti.” What!? Where the heck is Djibouti? Your typical sports fan must score better than average on a geography test.

Soccer also gave me an extra cultural experience to seek out when traveling. Going to a professional game when abroad is always a goal on any trip, and I’m always checking schedules for games that might fit our itinerary. Most recently, Nancy and I attended an English Premier League game at London’s newly remodeled Wembley Stadium.

And my how things have changed. Back in 1984, I attended my first match at a dilapidated old firetrap called Highbury, that was home to Arsenal Football Club. Its seats were sized for Lilliputians and its stairways and concourses were cramped and rickety. Unfortunately the new Wembley has gone a little too far in the other direction and feels a little too new, a little too clean and a little mundane. 

It’s a similar comparison a baseball fan might make between Boston’s Fenway Park (dilapidated firetrap) and Oracle Park in San Francisco (more than a little too precious). You may have guessed my positions on Arsenal, the Red Sox and the Giants. Guilty. Nevertheless sports fans, I stand by my portrayals.

We headed for Wembley because “our” team, Tottenham Hotspur, were using it as a home base while having their own stadium rebuilt. And to be sure, despite my nitpicking over the venue, we had a really great time. It was big fun. 

Tickets are a little tricky to get, as they are held back from sale to the general public in an effort to allow “club members” first crack. I kept my eye on the Tottenham website though, and about two weeks prior to the game, scored seats on the halfway line for about $75 each. 

The trip to the stadium via the Tube was a snap, and soon we were in the stadium tipping a pregame pint and eating a savory pregame pie. And both, to the American sports fan, were shockingly affordable. Our two beers and and two pies cost about $20 total. In comparison, on a recent visit to the Oakland Coliseum Arena (never will I say Oracle), I purchased a single beer that set me back $13. Ouch!

Now I am among the first to admit, soccer can be a boring sport to watch. The lack of scoring, players who roll around on the ground as though they’ve suffered a fatal injury, time-wasting tactics, and conservative strategies, too often combine for disappointingly dull matches. But I can’t help it. I’m hooked. Poor Nancy.

Fortunately, unlike our recent experience in Mexico City (poor Nancy), this game had none of that, and entertained us with goals, a saved penalty kick, friendly fellow fans, and an all around excellent sporting experience. The good guys (Tottenham) won 3-1, and all was right with the world. 

Way, way back, we thought the best thing about Kevin’s dad was that he had once taken a leak beneath the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But of course there is more. He was born in Portugal, immigrated to the USA, and from 1966 to 1983, served as Chief of the OB/GYN department at Hayward’s Kaiser Permanente Medical Center. And there, about 19 years before I met her, Dr. Jose Afonso was the attending physician at the birth of one Nancy Bestor. That puts him at the origins of two of my life’s greatest passions. Thank you Doc Fons.

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“Gooooooalllllll!” – Andres Cantor

by Nancy Bestor

As I write this story, the world is smack dab in the middle of perhaps its biggest and greatest international sporting event ever, the 2014 World Cup. For all you non-soccer people out there (or non-football people if you’re really in the know), this is the worldwide soccer event that happens just once every four years, and this year is being hosted by Brazil. We’re big soccer fans in our house (“we’re”, ha-ha) so soccer is on at all times in the front room, on a computer in the kitchen, and sometimes even on a computer in the living room too. Yes, it is on at least two viewing machines at the same time, apparently in case you walk out of one room and into another, because you wouldn’t want to miss ONE MINUTE OF IT.

I’ve been watching soccer since Bob and I started dating. I spent many, many Sundays sitting in the cold watching him play games all over the Bay Area. I traveled most weekends with him to away games, and was often the only fan of his recreational team. (You’re wondering if I was crazy right? I could admit to many things here, but the truth of the matter is, I really liked watching the games.) I don’t watch Bob’s games anymore, one reason being that he most often plays at 6am, and the other being that I now have other things that rank higher on my list (like reading a good book). But I do pay attention to the World Cup when it comes around. I like to root for all the underdogs and the United States, who coincidentally is an underdog in this event.

Over the years we’ve rooted along with our French friends for the French national team to win the World Cup, for Croatia (my mom’s homeland), for Costa Rica (because we met a kind Costa Rican soccer fan and hotel owner in their country many years ago), and, of course, for our home team. Bob fondly remembers the World Cup of 2002, which took place in Japan and South Korea. He got together with his soccer buddies in the middle of the night on several occasions to watch the games live. I, on the other hand, remember getting up in the middle of the night in 1981 to watch Prince Charles marry Diana Spencer. And we ended up getting together anyway.

The World Cup makes me think about the differences between the United States and other countries when it comes to sports. Bob was introduced to soccer when he was 10 years old. A boy at his school, whose father was born in Portugal, taught him how to play this “new game.” (The Portuguese father coincidentally happened to be the doctor who delivered yours truly, a fact Bob and I would learn after we met and married. Apparently our love was destined to be.) He and his friends began playing it at every recess and lunchtime, and Bob still plays today. Although soccer is much more popular in the US now than it was when Bob was a kid, I’m pretty sure soccer comes well behind football, baseball, and basketball, in our nation’s interests. Maybe even ice hockey too.

It’s lots of fun to travel to other countries while their teams participate in a big soccer event like the World Cup or the European Championships. When the national team is playing, things pretty much shut down as fans gather around televisions in public places to see a big goal, or the final minutes of a key game. We’ve been lucky enough to witness celebrations in France, Italy and England, with cars driving around honking their horns and people proudly hanging out their windows and balconies waving the national flag. There’s a national feeling of community during these moments, unlike any I’ve really experienced here in the US. Maybe it happened when the US national hockey team won the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics, but I wasn’t paying attention way back then.

I’m certain the United States national soccer team will continue to improve, as more and more little kids start playing soccer at age 3 and 4. Maybe one day we’ll get our chance to drive our cars through the streets, honking, chanting USA, USA, and proudly waving the American flag after our team wins the World Cup. Until that time, I’ll be rooting for the home team, but I’ll save my horn honking for when I’m trying to get my daughter’s attention in the high school parking lot.

 

Watching Die Hard Italian Soccer Fans

by Nancy Bestor

I’ve watched a lot of soccer in my life. For someone who’s not a huge fan, I know waayyyy too much about yellow cards and red cards, offside traps and corner kicks.

It all started in college, when I began dating a man who had played soccer since he was a young lad, and continues to play as an adult. I spent many a cold Sunday afternoon in the Bay Area watching him kick a ball up and down a field with his mates. Often I was the team’s only fan (what a dedicated girlfriend I was, right?).

iStock_000002287290XSmallI’ve watched lots of “important” soccer games on television too. There was the 1994 World Cup (Brazil v. Italy), watched in a small Ashland apartment with about 20 fans. (I was pregnant with our first child, and delighted that Emilio Delgado, Luis on Sesame Street was also there.) Then there was the 1998 World Cup (Brazil v. France) that we watched at a French friend’s home. Our family came with French flags painted on our faces. The best game I’ve ever seen on tv however, has to be the European Champions Cup semi-final (Germany v. Italy) that I watched at an outdoor restaurant in Verona last summer.

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