Mike Still, an intramural soccer player at Penn State, takes the pitch at Shanghai International Studies Institute (SISU) Hongkou campus. His strategy: “To do my best not to look like an idiot.”
I couldn’t have been on the field for more than five minutes, but with one shot I single-handedly ended the only soccer game on Chinese soil that I’ll likely ever play in.
But I didn’t score the game-winner.
When we arrived at our hotel in Shanghai early last week, the Jinjiang Inn located in the Hongkou district, the first thing that caught my eye in the area was a large turf soccer field sitting right across from our front door. Not even a block away from where we were staying is the Shanghai International Studies Institute (SISU) Hongkou campus, and the field sat behind the school’s massive gymnasium. In the morning, runners of all ages jogged on the track that circled the green field. But in the late afternoon every day was match day as soccer became the main event.
Right away I made it a goal of mine to hop in one of these pick-up games. I had an inclination that these middle aged Chinese men in Rec Specs and vintage Umbro shorts, and teenagers donning jerseys of their favorite players from around the world might not welcome an American kid without cleats into a game. But I knew I’d regret it long after we’d returned home at the end of the week if I didn’t at least try.
Upon arrival through the iron gate that surrounded the field, I realized I had no plan for how I would manage to get in a game if nobody spoke English. Fortunately I met a Villanova University student studying abroad at SISU who spoke a little Chinese. She asked guys standing on the sideline if they had room for one more, and just like that, I was running onto the pitch with what felt like all eyes on me.
Just a little background info on my soccer career … when I was five, I tried out but couldn’t run backwards because my head was too big for my body and I kept falling down. The coach suggested I try something else. Now I play goalie for an intramural team at Penn State. Oh, and I play a lot of FIFA 13. That’s about it.
Everyone wore different colors in this game. If any of them spoke English, they failed to let me know that. My strategy was to do my best not to look like an idiot.
I wasn’t sure who was going which direction, and when the ball came to me for a free kick in my own defensive zone, I quickly realized I didn’t know who was on my team. As I had learned in my short time in Shanghai, I’d have to rely on body language.
I panned the field with one hand, and patted the other on my chest. Quickly hands shot into the sky dispersed around the field, and I had found my teammates.
Soon after my team had a corner kick, and I had hoped to use my 6-foot-2 frame to my advantage for a header. Somewhere in the scrum that followed I lost sight of my initial goal — not making a fool of myself.
The ball came to my feet as I stood dead center in the middle of the goal, no more than ten yards away. As I wound up my right foot to drill it into the back of the net, I wondered how I’d celebrate my first goal in an international friendly.
Instead I blasted a shot not just well over the goal, not just over the track that circled the field, but over the wall and into the busy street beyond.
I don’t think I’ll be invited back.
I quickly hopped the fence as some around me threw up their arms in disgust and most others laughed loudly. Fortunately I found the ball nestled in a bush in the street’s median. But by the time I had thrown the ball back into play and climbed the fence again, everyone had dispersed and decided they were done for the day.
While I wish I had had more time to make a better impression, I was happy and relieved to even be invited onto the field. It had been my experience in Shanghai that in general strangers weren’t all that friendly to me. A day or two after my horrendous soccer debut, I went jersey shopping at a sporting good store just a couple blocks away from the field and the clerk hurriedly ushered me out of the store while I browsed just a few minutes after I’d arrived.
Perhaps it was my complexion, different from most everyone I encountered, but in many places in Shanghai I didn’t feel welcome.
On the soccer field, however, I felt no animosity. Even after I nearly lost some random guy’s ball, I mostly received sheepish smiles from strangers and no one asked me to leave.
I’ve been an athlete all my life, so maybe I’m biased. But even halfway around the world, competition and sport are unaffected by language or cultural barriers.
It’s still the same game, even if unfortunately I still can’t kick a soccer ball.