Upper Ninety

Mafia.

I am currently reading a book called “Soccer Against The Enemy: How the World’s Sport Starts Wars and Keeps Dictators in Power.”  Its a fascinating read because of all the history behind it.  Dont get me wrong, I was terrible at history and never cared too much for the subject, but when you add soccer to it, its like adding the sauce and meatballs to a pretty plain dish of spaghetti.  

Italian cuisine aside, the book does remind me of one of the sarciest footy moments of my life.  I imagine, that I will share my soccer stories with the world as time progresses, but I thought that I would go ahead and start sharing with this nugget of knowledge…though no knowledge ever is given.

2002 was the World Cup in Korea and Japan.  The first ever co-hosted Cup in the history of the tournament.  I guess the threat of nuclear war from the North wasnt really part of FIFA’s determining factors.  I was in my country, or at least half of it, for the first time ever.  I had gone with my “Older Brother” or ‘hyung’ in Korean. He invited me to stay with his family and show me around all parts of the country.  From the Mountains of Saraksan to the beaches near the DMZ (which is very surreal with barbed wire beaches).  The atmosphere was electric everywhere we went because of the fact The World Cup was being partly played in the land of the Tiger.  

Granted even in the U.S. when it is a World Cup year everyone catches soccer fever for approximately 2.5 weeks before the itching for the NFL season.  What that usually entails is the that everyone wants to emmulate what they have watched during the day, and play.  One of the best things about this sport is that even if you are not that good, or dont play on regular basis, the people who do just want to play and will allow the noobs to join in.  Thats what happened in Korea.  We have seen The Tigers, under Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coach lead the team to the quarter-finals, a first in the history of Korean Football.  Hyung and my self wanted to play, and I was itching for the competition and trying my hand or foot in this case, against international opponents. 

Land in Korea is a commodity and so when you visit Seoul or any of the major cities you will realize that the city is built upwards.  Parks with grass dont necessarily exist in Korea.  However, giant sand pits do.  Those are the fields, and that is where we went to play.  We ran into a teenager who was just excited at the chance to speak English invited us to play.  Now when we had arrived there was soccer practice going on with little kids, and mini games with what looked like high school kids.  When we spoke with the young lad, I noticed something strange…black cars that were pulling up to the field.  When I mean black, I mean the windows were tinted totally black and even the rims were black.  The car.  Was black. 

The guys who got out, were questionable.  This will sound terrible but this is what I thought.  When the first few guys got out, they were all bald, wearing soccer uniforms, tatted from head to toe wearing what looked like the Ray-Bans from Men In Black.  Now the men themselves looked like Down-Syndrome patients (see, terrible).  They just looked different.  Anyway, they stepped onto the field and started shewing the little kids and coaches off the field, but were leaving us alone, so needless to say a little disconcerting.  Eventually the teenager we were with, whose name I will never remember, told us that the Korean Mafia had shown up, and that we had to play.  we couldnt refuse them.  Before the game started I didnt know what to think.  My mind was racing thinking that I was going to end up on some FOX special of International detainees.  As we were lining up for the kick off, the teen mentioned one more thing…that we shouldnt play hard, or tackle.  I think that was pretty obvious but the way I was thinking it was a good reminder.  

We started playing and it really is all a blur, and I dont remember to much about what happened during the game except from one incident.  We had taken the ball from a turn over and I was playing up top as the left forward.  We started progressing up the field linking some passes up through the midfield and I started moving away from my marker.  As the ball started to make its way up field it ended up right about the half way line when hyung recieved the ball and started dribbling up field. Just before defense could step in and intercept he saw on the left that I was on the run calling for the ball.  

The cross was inch perfect.  It floated just right, and had the pace to carry through to my chest.  In my mind I was thinking that if I was going to die, at least I would have scored a goal against the Korean Mafia!  It was that moment when everything was just right.  Forwards know what I am talking about when you already know and have that feeling the ball is going in the back of the net.  Conditions were almost perfect because after all we were still playing in a giant sandbox.  The sun was shining, a cool breeze, blue sky, and I’m sure someone was making the perfect steak in Kansas. It was all systems go.  The ball hit my chest and with flawless control the ball drops in my stride.  My eyes on the ball watching it drop and timing my stride for the volley, I unleash the shot which was from just outside the 18 yard box.  I hit the sweet spot and managed to make the ball dip somehow.  In slow motion I watch the ball slice through the air and watching the goalkeeper trying to read and react to the shot. Mind you that the goalkeeper was one of the Mafia guys shirtless with a beer belly.  In that moment the ball was dipping into the lower left hand corner and in that split second I think my life was spared.  The ball in all its pomp was denied by the wood work and in the silence of the park, all I heard was, “dink.” The ball bounced out and was cleared out of the area.

I was confused.  Emotionally that is.  Any player knows that when you have an opportunity like that you are disappointed that the shot didnt hit the back of the net.  You are excited and proud that you actually shot that shot, however I was relieved that I still got to leave the park that day.  I was hacked off cause I missed, but relieved that I missed.  Almost immediately after the shot, all I could hear from the Mafia players in their broken English was, ” Good Shot-u! Good Shot-u!” I said thank you and prayed that wasnt the last thing I heard…

Shortly after that the game had ended because of nicatines effect on the longs of the Mafia players.  The Black cars arrived again, but this time more of them and the guys that were getting out, were the Korean version of Men In Black…

They deeply bowed to each other as though someone were pushing them down, and gave each other a hand shake. They then hopped in the cars and left.  I couldnt believe what had just happened.  The first time that I had played internationally since leaving England, and it happened to be with the Korean Mafia…what were the chances.  So thats one of my stories.  I hope to hear some stories of yours soon.  I enjoy a good story.

God Bless!

Stay Hydrated and I will see you on the field!

"Play for something bigger."