Mystified by Soccermania

When my son arrived from a Russian orphanage five years ago at the tender age of seven, he brought with him a finely honed skill in a sport I knew almost nothing about.

I recall that autumn day in 1993, watching the little ones scramble onto the field for the first soccer game of the season. I was mildly concerned about Alyosha, as he didn't yet have a stick of English and wouldn't be able to understand the coach's directives or the calls of the referee.

I needn't have worried.

There, before my eyes, a wondrous thing happened. Like a dove released from confinement, my son's gift took wing, and I watched as he deftly seized the ball, skittered over the field with it, and skillfully manipulated it around a passel of opposing players before depositing it in the goal.

I was immediately surrounded by a host of parents. "Where did he learn to play like that?" they asked me.

I could only gulp and sheepishly respond, "I have no idea. Not from me...."

During the period leading up to my son's arrival, a number of people questioned my adopting an older child. "You don't know what you're getting," said one. "You won't be able to have any influence over him," said another, rather cryptically.

Such comments only heightened my sense of anticipation. Even with biological children we don't know exactly what we're getting, as any stressed parents will admit when their child behaves in a manner that seems not of this earth. At least, I reasoned, I was able to look into the eyes of a child who was already there and fairly well along in his development. In Alyosha's eyes I saw the glint of intelligence, a capacity for laughter, and an inquisitive nature. Everything else I took on faith.

But this soccer! When my new son revealed his talent to me, I was pleasantly warmed. But now, five years later, the locomotive of his soccermania has reached full throttle. The house is littered with cleats, shin guards, team socks of every stripe and hue, and soccer magazines exhorting us to buy things we don't need.

All of this brought me to a decision: I would honor my son's passion by trying to learn all I could about soccer.

My first attempt to come to grips, so late in life, with the subculture of soccer, coincided with the recent World Cup. My son became a real international citizen during its broadcast and was soon able to rate teams and name individual players.

I tried to sit down with him and become interested. "Who's playing now?" I asked.

"Albania and Sudan," he told me without taking his gaze from the television screen. "Hoxyal is the Albanian striker, but he got called for tripping, so Abdul is going to throw it in, probably to their sweeper."

He recited all of this in one breath, without looking at me. Before I had a chance to ask him to repeat - and explain - what he'd just said, play had advanced and my son was kneeling on the floor, moaning, with his hands over his face. "No! No! No!" he wailed. "What a terrible move!"

"What?" I pleaded to know. "How was it terrible?"

Alyosha finally looked at me, a pained expression on his face. "You wouldn't understand," he said.

In my own defense, I teach college biology. I haven't won a Nobel Prize, but I'm not stupid. The thing is, ordinary knowledge, like mathematics or history, can be acquired if one has reasonable intelligence and patience. But soccer knowledge seems to be proprietary only to those who devote heart and soul to the game.

Even the rules escape me. Just yesterday, seated in my lawn chair on the sideline at one of Alyosha's games, I watched as the ref blew his whistle. The parent sitting next to me must have noticed the empty look on my face. Leaning over to me she whispered, "They were offsides."

"Oh," I murmured, feigning understanding as I nodded sagaciously. I came away from the game no wiser than before.

The cruelest part about being the parent of a soccer fanatic comes after the game. After he has run all over that immense field for two hours, my son comes home, dirty and sweating, and begs me to kick the ball with him. I normally decline, thinking he must be kidding.

After yesterday's particularly grueling game I decided to call his bluff. "OK," I said. "Let's play."

Where, oh where does his stamina come from? For a solid hour he danced circles around me, laughing to the wind with every goal. Finally, unable to go on, I collapsed into the grass.

Alyosha came over to me with the ball tucked under his arm. "Get up," he admonished. "I'll let you get a goal."

"I can't," I protested. "I've had it."

He stood looking down at me for a moment. Then he shook his head slowly and pronounced, "You're old, and you're weak."

My face brightened at that one. I'm not so old, and I'm actually quite robust; but when it comes to playing soccer with my son, I'm simply outclassed.

He extended the hand of fellowship to me and helped me to my feet. In that moment I realized that my inadequacy in soccer was my gift to him, an acknowledgment that it's important for kids to be better than their parents at certain things.

Now, if I could only muster the courage to ask him to explain "offsides" to me.

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