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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