It was 2 o´clock on a Sunday in Los Andes, Chile… just a lazy Sunday where I had nothing planned. As I sat down at the table for lunch I noticed that my phone had 7 missed calls. Who the hell needs to talk to me this urgently on a Sunday? I called back the random number wondering who in god’s name it could be. A guy answered the phone as Diego….
“Which Diego?” I asked.
“The one from the park,” He answered. A week earlier, I was at the park (common theme) bantering with a dude who was fresh out of high school. Being two guys in South America, we inevitably reached the topic of soccer. He told me about a Chilean soccer league that he plays in. Then he let me know that his team might have space for a tall, lanky gringo. He took my number and then left, telling me that he’d keep me posted….
Wow, the dude on the phone THIS Diego! He told me that the team was about to play in 2 hours and that he could meet me at the plaza in 30 minutes to take me there. I quickly wrapped up my lunch, grabbed my cleats, and sprinted out the door.
When I met Diego in the plaza he told me that the field was too far for walking. “Entonces, que hacemos?” (what are we going to do?) I asked. He told me to sit on the front of his bike. I propped my butt on the handle bars and let my legs dangle. What followed was the most terrifying 15 minutes of my life as he peddled the bike, darting from one street to another. I distinctly remember believing I was going to fall and/or die most of the ride. When we finally got to the field my hands were purple from clutching the bike. It was well worth it though, because looking at the pitch got me giddy; it had been too long since I had played a full game of 11 v 11 soccer.
When I met the coach, the first thing he said to me was that I was tall. “Si, es verdad!” (That’s true!) I answered. He asked me what position I play, and I told him midfield. He gave me a second up-down, and then told me to grab a jersey. As I was changing in the godawful (repeat, GODAWFUL) locker room the coached told me there might be a problem. Apparently playing with a foreigner would cost the team a transfer fee. Maybe if I was brazilian or italian they would have paid it, but being a gringo wasn’t enough reason for them to drop 100 bucks on me. I was definitely disappointed, even though I probably wasn’t in peak soccer shape, I still wanted to get myself in that game. I asked him if there was anything we could do. He told me that he was going to try to improvise something.
Ten minutes later, he jogged up to me and handed me a soccer player license. I looked at the card and read the name: Anibal Torres Campos. Nice! He must have looked through his pile of soccer licenses to find the most similar looking Chilean player he could. I’m far from Chilean, but if this what it takes then to hell with it! I’m Anibal!
“From now until the end of the game, don’t say a word, because no one can know you are gringo! Here is your card. Your name is Anibal. When the assistant asks you for your signature, just make a few scribbles, and leave. Don’t say a goddamn word!” (the gist of what the coach told me in mumbled Spanish).
I stepped into the dughouse and handed the lady my card. She looked at my face, looked down at the card, and then asked me to sign the sheet. I made the most horrendously brief signature possible and then bolted. I was in! I was officially a minor, minor Chilean League Soccer player!!
Obviously getting on the field is one thing, but playing really well is another. Thankfully, if you’re ever the new foreign guy on a team, the rules for playing are simple.
1. Don’t get caught out of position.
2. Play ruthless defense.
3. Pass the damn ball.
Although I made some mistakes, I stuck to the plan. I wasn’t a Messi, or even anything close… but I covered lots of space, won head balls, and most importantly, did not say a word, even when I felt like pleading my case to the referee (got SCREWED on a call). People were pleased and I was too. The coach told me to come back the next week.
I’ve been playing for the team for six weeks now, and the they’ve been great. Most players just call me gringo, but I also get Christian, Russo (I guess I look Russian), and some still even say Anibal. After week 3 the coach decided to pay the transfer fee, so I can finally speak on the pitch. Being more outspoken has definitely changed my dynamic on the team. Before I could duck out after the game and mostly observe. Now I´m just immersed in a reckless sea of dudes for 4 straight hours. After every game the team’s goal is to either:
A. Get me drunk off beers from the snack stand.
or B. Get me to say Chilean swear words.
Chileans absolutely love impressions of their swearing, so I stick to that (I swear my ASS off!!). Then, usually after about two hours of hanging out and talking with the team, I call it a day and head back. Soccer days are exhausting, but I’ve learned that it’s a great kind of exhausting.