I can't go anywhere around here without intruding on a soccer/football game. (It still feels pretentious to call it football.) All the little alleyways that sprout off the main arteries crisscrossing the medina have an active game in progress, day and night. Often, these are the really young kids, the under-ten set. I imagine mama has set their boundaries, full freedom in the twisting veins, right up to the main thoroughfare where the flow gets heavy with chaos and potential trouble.
There is no choice but to interrupt the game - shit is narrow. First priority is protecting J's belly as the game stops for nothing, no injury stoppage, no extra time. She's been clipped before, so have I. I don't blame them, if they stopped for every passerby it wouldn't be much of a game. I think sometimes they aim for us. Hell, I wouldn't have been above it at that age, or ten years on. Softening the blow is the lack of a quality pumped-up ball. We walk right through the impact, melon-sized red plastic ball pinging off us without any visible reaction, so as not to give them any satisfaction.
I've grown comfortable with the boys in my alley - familiar. I'll approach nonchalantly and then pounce on the ball if it is in my vicinity. Once I've gotten possession, I'll wave over a defender, with taunting if I have to, and try to dribble around with something impressive - nutmegging is all I really got. They humored me at first, but my limited skill-set was quickly sussed by superior football IQ's. Now, when I get the ball, they just stand paralyzed until I've had my fun. A peaceful demonstration.
The teenagers play on the beach. The "fields" are more elaborately drawn out than I've seen in other places, etched to an almost-permanent depth. They use "real" goals - futeca-sized. One end line almost reaches the end line of the adjoining pitch. It's tough to get to the water. There's lots of arguing. They all have six-packs.
The adults play in sunken concrete arenas that temporarily split the cornice/boardwalk into two. There are fans. Pace is fast. Skill level is high.
But yesterday I watched the most fascinating game. They were playing on a huge asphalt slab just outside the Bab Marrakech entrance to the medina, which I have to cut across to get to la plage. What caught my eye on the approach, partially obscured by a car, was the way a striker made one deft nudge with the outside of his foot toward the center of the field, lowered a shoulder, and struck the ball without raising his head. At a target goal that was about a meter wide and built of piled-up shirts. Amazing focus and court sense/field vision. And so fluid. Though I have some history with football, I don't claim to be a expert, but I do have hours of World Cup play still fresh in my memory. Robben, Van Persie, Benzema, Neymar, Messi - that's what it looked like - that polished. His shot was like a rocket, but careened wide. He gaped to the sky in disbelief, hands on cheeks, opportunity blown - I guess it was a "good look." As he jogged back up the field and into position with that efficient soccer-shuffle gait meant to preserve energy for the next explosive attack, he chastised his buddy for getting him the ball too late. There wasn't a player on the court older than nine.
The young'uns had taken their game outside the city walls. It had the feel and organization of a "standing game," maybe maman cutting the jalaba strings for "special permission Saturdays." I was pleased to see them out there - it nags at me a bit to see their ultra-confined games, like an itch I can't quite scratch. The quality of play was beyond impressive, but their "mature" demeanors was almost like an optical illusion. I had trouble believing what I was seeing.
I'm always mesmerized by the appearance and behavior of third-world(ish) children living adult lives - specifically, the adoption of adult mannerisms. With boring consistency, I'll say, "That's a little man right there." I think it's understood that I don't intend this comment to be one of admiration or even respect, but also not one of sobbing sympathy. It's fascination. I know I'm witnessing a childhood robbed. I'm just an observer.
"How old do you think that kid is?"
"Maybe. That's a little man right there."
And he's drumming up business: shining shoes, serving tea, pushing carts, selling tissues, giving haircuts, playing music, singing, dancing, performing, giving directions, guiding, pitching, begging, pleading, manipulating, stealing, lying, selling, selling, selling. Little man.
There's little smiling. There's no baby fat. There's only "adult" models, and they're all involved with scraping by. Food and shelter. Maybe candy. That's their reality. Five years before my world even expanded to allow for wrapping toilet paper around neighbor's trees or jacking basketball nets from neighborhood hoops, these kids are making a living, and probably helping to provide for their families.
They dress like adults. They tilt their hats like adults. They relate to each like adults. They move like adults. They talk like adults. They fight and argue like adults. They work like adults.
And play football in their spare time.
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