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With that, Tony lost control of the exercise. A vital secret had changed hands: we had the ball. During their next couple of chances, more than half the players on trial scored, and while Tony did from time to time wrest the ball away, no one gave it to him. We had seen, many of us for the first time, what a weapon the ball is so close to the goal. It was Tony who had the hard job, not us.
He began making some childish moves, shoving one man and kicking the feet of another. Most of the players continued to fake their way around him, but a few challenged him more directly, and thus these were more insulting if their moves succeeded. On my seventh try, I at last threw off the mincing shyness that had been my albatross and simply ran past Tony, leaving him standing straddle-legged; I finished the dash with my single best shot of the day, an immensely gratifying rip that crossed an inch inside the right goalpost. Tony at once asked to be relieved.
His replacement, unencumbered by 20 minutes' worth of running and irritation, established a more even balance between offense and defense. Whereas all of us had at one time or another gotten past Tony, only seven or eight managed to score off his successor. I was not one of those seven or eight.
At the conclusion of the drill—the conclusion of the tryouts—I heard a few loud sighs, and one player beside me muttered, barely audibly, "Aw, Jeez." These were the only complaints I noticed, not just then but right through the coach's final choices and our exodus from the field as well. Doubtless there were players who felt they had been shortchanged, but no one felt sufficiently moved to protest. In part the general silence was a result of plain fatigue and the rudimentary satisfaction of knowing something is finished. But the reticence was also a result of the excellent soccer training given us in these drills, the third perhaps the most instructive because it afforded such a graphic example of the way competitive scales can swing first one way and then another. The simplicity of soccer—the extent to which a mere change of attitude can affect the outcome—had been borne in on us.
The game is all but devoid of complications. Even the offsides rule, a perennial source of confusion, is nowhere near as involved as hockey's. The action is continuous, and many players are directly involved in each play. An Italian soccer clich�, roughly as old as "Hit 'em where they ain't," goes, "The play was called by everyone." Therefore, the best players are not necessarily the fastest or tallest or strongest but those who are most adaptable and most even-tempered. In a sport where the vast majority of games are decided by one goal, and where the most common score is 3-2, one high-strung player can undo the work of 10 level-headed ones. To yield for a moment to the urge to showboat, on the one hand, or to the urge to concede, on the other, can be swiftly fatal—sporting equivalents of the sins of pride and faithlessness. This is a simple game, and it is best played with simple fidelity. It may be that these unadorned precepts comprise soccer's lesson: the sport constantly reminds its players to be patient and to maintain good habits. A fine lesson, if so.
After the last tryout drill the coach called me and 10 others aside and sent the rest off on a final two-mile run. That was it. My name was one of those he took down as a possible emergency replacement, reminding us meanwhile that soccer was a strange game, etc. and you never know, etc. These rhetorical pats on the back were superfluous so far as I was concerned. My brother, during our ride home, let me know he was prepared to hear complaints ("I thought you made a good showing. Didn't you think you made a good showing?"). But I felt no need to respond.
I turned out, as always, to watch the local games during the summer. These were played on that same field at the junior high school, but this never bothered me in the least, although I did suffer the pangs of being an outsider whenever I passed behind the team bench. "Jeez, those Italians," my could-have-been teammates would say to each other, shaking their heads at what was happening. "I just can't figure it out. They won't run." I was never called on, but then I had realized beforehand that nothing short of a rash of broken legs would cause the coach to phone me.
During the summer there was a great deal of talk about soccer being the game of the future in this country. An American soccer boom has been long prophesied and it may well be that its hour has come round at last. The sport's hold on the young is quite strong. Soccer is said to have been the most popular sport among Long Island teen-agers over the last five years, with 10,000 youngsters currently participating in more than 35 organizations. Many papers now devote nearly as much space to schoolboy soccer as to schoolboy football. Attendance at the Cosmos games was booming. And. your reporter on the scene feels obliged to add, attendance at southern Connecticut games was up, too, regularly breaking into three digits.
I am pleased to see such promising signs. There will, of course, be negative aspects to mass popularity, much like those suffered by other professional team sports which have boomed, but perhaps those earlier examples will cause the directors of the NASL and other soccer leagues to act with more intelligence and responsibility than their older brothers in sport. Sobering too is the thought that, as soccer grows, the already thin spread of athletic talent will become thinner still, although the game's appeal to ordinary physical specimens may alleviate the distribution problem. The fact is that we have no sure way of gauging for certain whether or not soccer will become a major sport in the U.S.
In any case, and without meaning in the least to denigrate the possible soccer millennium around the next corner, I cannot help but reserve my greatest fondness for the amateur games played in my area of Connecticut. I stroll along the sidelines and goal lines of an afternoon, noting this weakness and that fine play, observing the clockwork of catenaccio against the hardscrabble play of the Americans. A young man named Costa seems to be winning all the between-games sharpshooting contests. Behind everything rises the continual, warming, multilingual buzz of the spectators, along with the smell, equally warming, of their food. Perhaps these games have some unique attractions. Or perhaps they have only one great attraction, which would be simply that anyone can play—even those who watch.