Oceanside [pelada]By: Sean | September 6th, 2011
Sometimes, everything just comes together.
About a year and a half ago, I fell in love with a little documentary called “Pelada“. It follows two recent college graduates, Luke and Gwendolyn, as they travel around the world playing pick-up soccer. Unable to play professionally but unwilling to give up the game they love so much, they chase the game in its purest form to almost every corner of the globe…from South American prisons and Japanese rooftops…from African slums and Iranian parks…from deserts and beaches and construction sites…anywhere there is space and a ball. The film speaks to the universal appeal of the game and its ability to bring together people from all walks of life. I’m not a professional film critic so I lack the expansive cinematic vocabulary to speak about pacing and transitions and the like, but I do know what speaks to this middle-aged guy who has been kicking a ball around since he stopped watching Saturday morning cartoons in the third grade…and the message of “Pelada” most definitely resonates with him. Literally. I made the theme song from the documentary the ringtone for my cell phone.
The word itself, pelada, means “naked” in Brazil and refers to the basic, stripped down form of the game played where there is a ball and open space. You may know it as pick-up soccer or a kick around. It is the game sans fancy uniforms, scoreboards or often a referee. It is a field without crisp chalk lines or even grass. It is goal posts implied by empty bottles, or rocks, or a makeshift crate. It is a result that will never be recorded or remembered except by the four or seven or eighteen players who were there. It is football for football’s sake and it is often the most beautiful type of footy of all.
I’m quite certain that if you are reading this–all four of you, ahem. (Hi Mom!)–you are familiar with the dynamics of pick-up soccer. There is a certain ritual to it that, for me at least, kind of defines the experience. It starts with two or three people passing idly around. Others will take note and casually drift closer, waiting for an invitation or an errant pass to return and thus, become included in the action. New players will join in and the passing triangle becomes a square, then a pentagon, and then a lopsided circle that grows until some sort of critical mass is reached. Invariably someone will assert him or herself and establish the field of play. Another individual will assist with the construction of goals, and nine times out of ten the goals will be mis-proportioned for the field size and require adjustment. Ultimately, the field will be too small and require modification after a few minutes of play. Teams will be determined and player sides will be negotiated until the unspoken group consensus is reached that the two sides look reasonably evenly matched, and with a rush and a push the game gets underway. Players will gravitate towards those parts of the field that they usually play. One or two players from each side will usually establish themselves as a de facto team captain or, at the very least, a field leader and the course of play will begin to ebb and flow through them, hoping to find that wonderful balance between dribbling, passing, and smart shooting. At some point one of the strikers will be rebuked for not getting back on defense and an errant shot will be postmarked with “BUT I WAS OPEN!!” from a frustrated unmarked attacker in the middle. If the soccer gods are amicable, that is all the grief that is to be had on the pitch that day, but a reckless tackle or too much ball hogging can turn the kick-around afoul. These are but some of the little rituals that make pick-up soccer both familiar and maddening, but sometimes…
Sometimes, everything just comes together.
A Labor Day holiday weekend in Portland, Oregon with temperatures in the high 80s means one thing: Go to the beach. (Actually, in Oregon, we say “go to the coast”, but whatever.) With the sun dawning bright and glorious last Saturday–and feeling a little guilty that our chock full summer schedule of youth soccer tournaments for Kiki precluded any real vacation–my wife, daughter, her friend Mikki and I opted to pack into the Escape and make the 70 minute drive from our house in suburban Portland to Seaside, a popular coastal community with a boardwalk, attractions, shops, and enough candy stores to satisfy any ten year old girl with a sweet tooth. However, approximately 20,000 of my fellow Oregonians also had a similar plan for the last days before school started and 30 minutes of road time got us only a few miles away from our house. The endless line of idling vehicles was too much to bear, so with a curse and a sigh I wheeled our vehicle back around and opted for a less crowded destination: Oceanside, an often overlooked coastal village without a boardwalk, no attractions, maybe a half dozen shops, and only two places that sold candy. Understandably, Kiki was not fully on-board with this new change of venue. “There’s nothing to do in Oceanside!” I expertly parried this criticism as only a father can: “Too bad! That’s where we’re going.”
Fortunately, ten year old girls are remarkably resilient and the much improved travel speed did much to allay fears that we would, in fact, “never get to the coast.” In due time we did arrive to the glorious sight of azure skies and waters as well as the characteristic site of the Three Arch Rocks some half mile offshore. It was one of those rare Oregon coast days where you could lounge about on the beach without a wet suit or a parka and truly sunburn your skin, as opposed to just wind burning it. The girls played in the crashing surf and “swam” in a slightly warmer, much shallower channel for a good thirty minutes before I heard the sweet music I longed to hear:
“Hey, Dad, do you want to kick the soccer ball around?”
Yes I do.
We rolled out the old adidas Starlancer from the beach bag–because it is better to have a soccer ball and not need it than need a soccer ball and not have it–and plodded our way over sand and sand dollars to a relatively flat expanse of beach between a smattering of beach towels. A barefooted pass from Kiki sent the Starlancer to me and a gentle one-touch put it at Mikki’s feet. Just three people passing idly around. I noticed the double-take from another group walking by, followed by a smirk. The girls grew weary of the passing after a few minutes and it was decided we should play 1 v 2. Kiki and Mikki scampered off to find some rocks to establish the goals for a field of play. Driftwood was used to carve out a makeshift center circle and a few sharp stones were evicted from the pitch. A family camped out just beyond the edge of our area smiled and nodded to their own kids. With a rush and a push (Kiki totally fouled me!) the game got underway and the two former teammates were flying down the beach, moving into their familiar positions of Kiki up front and Mikki sprinting down the wing. “Back pass! Back pass!” Mikki yelled. “Show for me!” Kiki responded. (Why didn’t they talk like this when I was their coach!?) Almost instantly there was a delicate balance of dribbling, passing and smart shooting, just the three of us. Some guy by the water with a huge camera turned and clicked off a series of pictures. When one of our errant passes went long, it was trapped by a young African kid who smiled broadly. “Can we play soccer, too?”
This is how it starts. “Totally.”
My friggin’ awesome wife had also been taking some pictures from nearby and the African youth, named Hadid, ran over to his host family adjacent to where she was sitting. She heard him beam, “Isaac! Come! You wanna play soccer?!” Two more players joined out pelada. The game ebbed and flowed not unlike the tides just yards from our goal, all smiles, sweat and sand. A dad came up to me and asked, “Can my boys play in your game, too?”
The teams were reworked for the new players and the field size between the rock goals was adjusted accordingly. 1 v 2 had become 2 v 3 and now grew, quite naturally, into 3 v 4. The game continued without any incidents or pretense. Both sides had a good laugh when Mikki, by far the shortest person on the pitch, made an expert challenge on Hadid and sent the athletic youth sprawling into the sand. Every shot was rewarded with a “Nice try!” or “Oh! Unlucky!” Another father and his son walked up. “Could we play, too?”
The game continued to grow, this happy collection of ten year olds and high schoolers and middle-aged guys passing around seaweed and driftwood and, occasionally, the adjacent group’s beach towels. But even when the ball went bounding through another family’s unofficial area, there were nothing but grins and smiles from them as Kyle played a long ball or Carlos charged after his brother. Another kid in a green shirt approached: “Can I play, too?”
Everybody just seemed to get the gentlemen’s offsides. Everybody just seemed to know where to stand, where to go. Some of the players could have easily dribbled through a lot of the other side…but they didn’t. Somebody could have complained about it being out when it was clearly still playable…but they didn’t. Unintentional handballs were blissfully ignored. The match went on without a clock and added extra time was determined by the redness of the sunburn on your shoulders. 60 minutes? 90 minutes? Impossible to tell. Even the final score escaped me…although Kiki assures me her team “crushed” my team. With a final round of handshakes and a group picture (above), I bid thanks and happy Labor Day to the fine players at the Oceanside [pelada], knowing full well I will likely never, ever see any of them again. The girls collected the ball, the incoming tides would eventually wipe the center circle away, and the best time I have ever had at the coast soon came to an end…