Remembering That One Pass

WHEN the United States was hosting the World Cup soccer tournament this past summer, one player was asked during an interview whether there were any games he would remember for the rest of his life. Not so much games, he replied, as certain passes, certain goals scored.

His observation took me back to the days when my buddies and I would kick a soccer ball around just about every day for hours on end. I was in my early teens then and living in West Germany, and I was a forward on our street soccer team. Needless to say, those were the days before high fives and talk about the flow of adrenaline.

As far as our street team was concerned, soccer was the national pastime. What we lacked in proper equipment we more than made up for in enthusiasm. None of us played in soccer boots. This was post-war Germany, when even street shoes were at a premium. Sometimes we might have to play in sandals, which crimped our style because sandals didn't allow you to unleash a really hard shot. And sooner or later, because of broken straps, sandals would fly off your foot and hurtle along with the ball.

Soccer balls were at a premium, too. The guy who owned one was the most popular kid on the block. He was lionized, he was sweet-talked, he got to play the position he asked for even though he might have been unfit to play soccer at all. But it was his ball, and if he didn't get his way he would grab his ball and stomp off.

We had no coach to teach us the finer points; nobody on the sidelines to cheer us on. When someone missed a shot at the goal, nobody was there to yell, ``good try.'' Instead, a teammate was likely to berate the hapless player. Unless he happened to own the ball, of course.

If there were fragile egos in need of propping up or self-esteem at peril, we didn't know about it. We did know who our soccer heroes were - Fritz Walter and Heinz Spundflasche, for instance - and we had never seen them suffer from deficient ego or self-esteem.

The high point in the annals of our street team was a match arranged by Franz, our best player. Franz was so nimble-footed, we had seen him out-dribble two or even three members of the opposing team at once. The two of us had a good rapport. We had a decent midfield and a so-so defense.

On street teams, it was standard procedure to assign the weaker players to the backfield. If anything, it gave the goalie a scapegoat. Yet every player aspired to play forward. There was little glory to be had in playing defense.

When we arrived on the field for the match, we noticed that the other team had a couple of older and physically stronger players. It did not bode well for the game. Since there were no hard rules about age in street soccer, we could lodge only a half-hearted protest.

The other team assured us that those older guys were not all that good. This was stated within earshot of those players and did little to convince us, but we acquiesced. Since none of us owned a watch, we agreed we would break for halftime after the first team had scored five goals, rather than after the regulation 45 minutes. Thus the match could drag on for hours.

Our teams turned out to be well-matched. Perhaps those older players held back a bit; perhaps they really were not all that great. After what seemed like a couple of hours, somebody scored the 15th goal and we broke for halftime.

No water bottles or refreshments awaited us on the sidelines. We just sat down on the grass and assessed our chances for victory. The high points were noted proudly, mistakes pinned on culprits, and we resolved to ``tighten things up in the back'' and do less hogging of the ball and more accurate passing up front. The usual pep talk.

Then we kicked off the second half. After interminable wrangling punctuated by more goals, the match came down to a score of 9 to 9. To lose the game at this point would not have been dishonorable. But each side was doggedly trying to tip the scales in its favor, if for no other reason than to put an end to this marathon contest.

IN the tired to and fro of the battle, it then happened that our team was in possession of the ball again. I was standing about 50 to 60 feet away from the other team's goal when a high pass from the midfield came my way. From the corner of my eye, I noticed that the nearest threat was a player only a short distance behind me, and Franz, in turn, was behind him, close to their goal.

I decided I would try to pass the ball to Franz over the head of the defense without first trapping it. So the instant the ball hit the ground, I managed to redirect the bounce with a touch of the tip of my shoe - a street shoe, mind you - having the ball arc over the head of the defense.

I was surprised it worked so well and so accurately. The ball came down right at Franz's feet. The outmaneuvered defenseman let out a startled yelp. Franz quickly controlled the ball and scored. Grinning broadly, he came and shook my hand.

If I have remembered this one pass all these years, it is mainly because it required so little effort, though some finesse, and it decided the outcome of the game.

For our street team, this game ranked with Germany's first world cup win in 1954. Fritz Walter played on that team. We dedicated our victory to him and Heinz Spundflasche.

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