116street Soccer

Footballing from a lesser authority...

Location: New York, New York

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Barca Comes to El Barrio

I caught a terrific match this morning between FC Barcelona and Real Betis. Yes, I am fully aware that Barcelona plays Racing Santander today, but before you call me crazy, allow me to set the scene. Having awakened by all miracles without a hangover, I set about the East Harlem streets to see what the newly spectacular weather might bring. I myself got a cup of hazelnut coffee, and made a right onto 114th Street, bringing myself to Thomas Jefferson Park.
Upon my arrival, some youth soccer games were about to begin, so I took a look around to see exactly what would unfold. Directly in front of me were two teams of six and seven-year-olds. One team was wearing exact replicas of Barcelona's famous kit, with the scarlet and blue shining brightly under the sunlight, and the yellow numbers making it pretty easy to pick each kid out. The other was in a slightly more generic, but similarly well-made kit; their green and white allowed me to mentally connect them to Betis. Looking around, I saw that another game was already in progress, featuring significantly older kids (late teens) in similarly detailed Barca unis, against a bunch of dudes in t-shirts. Less interested in that game, I turned my attention back to the little ones.
Nearly every kid on the field was Mexican-American, save for one black kid playing up top for Barca as the lone striker. Being the sort who uses racial identifiers, I branded him "Eto'o" for the rest of the game. Kickoff came, and I found the skill level to be much higher than I expected for a bunch of seven-year-olds. The Barcelona kids were especially well-organized for a bunch of little kids; they kept their shape and spread the ball around, whereas the Betis kids, seemingly older and bigger, crowded around the ball and followed each other around, never passing. A very small Barcelona kid, wearing number 6 ("Little Xavi," as I referred to him from then on), tried to manuever around a skilled Betis defender, and flopped in a way that would do Francesco Totti proud. He got the call, and I couldn't help but laugh to myself, they learn these things at such a young age.
Betis came charging back on the counterattack, six of them crowded around the ball, each screaming for a pass that none of them deserved. Barca's very tall girl, marshalling the central defense, stepped forward and cleared it away with ease. More kids were now coming to the park, including a team of middle-school-age kids, also wearing complete Barcelona uniforms. Either Barca started a U.S. academy and didn't tell anyone, or Leo Messi is going to show up at the park any minute now.
The Betis team, for all of their tactical deficiencies, were bigger and more skilled with the ball, and it was starting to show. Another hive-like counterattack yields a goal, and it's 1-0 Real Betis. Barca is still digging in though, with Little Xavi all over the place, providing inspiration. For a kid who can't be older than six, he's definitely the best player on the field, but he's no ball-hog. He's all-action, much like Barca's real number 6, breaking up plays and trying to distribute the ball to his teammates; for a six-year-old, he has a real feel for the game.
Another bad clearance from the kiddie Blaugrana, and the team in green buries the sitter, two-nil, Betis. I spy a couple of African-American kids, about eleven or twelve, warming up on the sideline, one in a Stephon Marbury Knicks t-shirt, the other in a Che Guevara shirt and cargo pants, displaying more skill on the ball than any of the other kids at the park. Little Xavi flops again, and this time doesn't get the call. He writhes on the ground in fake pain for a while, and the referee starts laughing, so much so that he misses a handball.
A kid from Betis puts a sweet nutmeg on the female Carles Puyol, but hits the post with his shot. Eto'o takes off on a great countering run, getting one-on-one with the keeper before being taken out from behind from a Betis defender. The ref awards a corner, no penalty, but all the parents here are sane, so nobody gets carried away protesting the call. The kid in the Stephon Marbury t-shirt walks by, effortlessly switching his dribbling from basketball to soccer, working on both crossovers and stepovers with skill and ease. The game has real a future in this country, I think to myself.
The smaller Barcelona kids are losing, but they stay in their formations and keep passing. They might be losing the game, but they are going to be the better players in the long run. A kid named Danny from Betis is hogging the ball, and all the kids are pissed off. Soon enough, though, they pull off a rare display of good passing, and put the final ball away, 3-0 Betis. A couple of Mexican kids in Brazil jerseys are anxious for the game to end, so they can get on the field. Stephon Marbury and Che Guevara are on the other side, feeling the same way.
The final whistle blows, the game ends, 3-0 to the team in green and white. The Barca kids don't look very disappointed, but they go to get a drink of water. The Betis kids want to keep playing, so they stay on the field and have a kick around. The two Mexican kids and the two black kids hang out by one goal, doing the same.
The two Mexican kids in the Brazil shirts don't appear to speak any English, and the two black kids in the t-shirts don't seem to speak any Spanish, yet somehow they have organized a game of "21," with one kid as goalkeeper and the other three playing every man for himself. They are having a great time with it, and I'm amazed at how kids are able to immediately move beyond boundaries that adults struggle with consistently. The ball goes wide and the designated keeper retrieves it, throwing it back in before he can get back to goal. The other three, their eyes wide with anticipation, all go for the header that will catch the keeper off his line; they all miss, and a collective "AWW!!!" rings out. I laugh out loud, finish my coffee and head home to write about all that I saw.


Blogger JMP said...

I just got a great laugh envisioning the female Carlos Puyol.

12:51 AM  

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