The sweat poured from my face and my heart pounded in my chest as if it were a trapped wild pigeon in a cage. People cheered and dust particles flew up from the cement ground amidst the scuffle of quick feet and commotion. There I stood awkwardly feeling out of place in a context that I was unfamiliar with. I stood between two posts on either side of me, and one across the top near my head. I ventured out a few steps and yet cautiously looked over my shoulder to make sure I was still in position. “Here he comes, get ready…” I thought to myself. My muscles tensed, all time seemed to stand still and WHAM! the ball was smashed into me as if Mike Tyson himself were delivering a body shot to my gut. Everyone shouted and screamed, “¡Arquero!” (“Goalie”—which is common to yell and say during a game). “Whew, I blocked that one.” I thought to myself again. “Oh wait! I only have four seconds to get rid of the ball!” I quickly released the ball and gameplay resumed…
My former three year goalie career in middle school (between the ages of 12-14), did nothing to prepare me to play futsal (a lightening version of regular soccer with significant rule changes) with Paraguayans. These guys are faster, have more intelligence about the game, and have some of the quickest shots off the cuff of anyone I’ve ever played with before. Playing arquero is not an easy task for an outsider like me.
Now listen, I’m a sports guy. I’ve always been a sports fan and I hope I always will be. There’s something about the excitement of each game that I’ve loved from the time that I can remember. And playing sports? Oh man, don’t get me started! One of the reasons why I love it so much is because you build relationships with people in a completely different way. There’s something about playing alongside someone that bridges a gap and builds a bond much quicker than you otherwise would have. And you don’t even need to use words! That’s been one of the biggest advantages I have in playing soccer with these guys. Because I can say very little, and yet gain ground on a relational level faster than most can sitting down and talking. But sports here in Paraguay are different…
In the United States, the word “sport” means any number of things ranging from baseball, basketball, football, and track and field, just to name a few. Here in Paraguay, the word “sport” is almost synonymous with soccer. Of course there is a high interest in things like volleyball, piki volley (volleyball played ONLY using feet), etc. But soccer is definitely the favorite. Therefore, when you first get to know someone and they ask you if you play sports and you say, “Yes.” You’re automatically asked if you’ve ever played soccer. I wish I could have said no (I obviously don’t mean that!)!
Playing soccer here hasn’t been easy for me. First off, my physical qualities don’t necessarily lend to that of a star player like Lionel Messi of Argentina. Secondly, let’s get honest here, I’m slow as molasses! Even playing baseball in High School, the coach would line me up with another slow guy and the whole team would joke about needing sun dials vs. stop watches to clock me! Therefore, whenever someone says, “Vamos a jugar futbol mas tarde.” (“Let’s go play soccer later.”) joy isn’t the first thing that enters my mind. Instead, I normally reply with something witty like, “¡Me encanta futbol Americano!” (“I love American football!). And thirdly, I’m just not good at the sport. I genuinely enjoy soccer in the sense that I love to watch it, I generally understand what’s taking place, and I even LOVE going over to friends’ houses to watch Club Olimpia play. I want to be good at soccer. But I’m just not!
At any rate, I think it’s safe to say that playing soccer, though difficult, has proven effective and even important to my language study. Why? Because Paraguayans value the sport of soccer! Having gone through the physical torment of playing in community leagues and church leagues has built new relationships with believers and unbelievers alike. Whenever I see members of the community (all unbelievers who get together and play weekly) that I only know through the “after work soccer world,” they all refer to me as Arquero. Even at church the next week after playing, three different people referred to me solely as Arquero without using my name.
As I’ve thought about this some more I’ve come to realize that this is significant. Why? Because I’m not that stereo typical foreigner to them anymore. You know, the guy who shows up for a month or two, never shows in an interest in what they care about and then leaves. In their minds, I’m less of a question mark now. In fact, after playing soccer, I’m more a part of their community in some ways than I ever was before. Because I’ve just taken part in one of the most valued parts of their entire culture without even needing words! At the end of the day, playing soccer with Paraguayans can be hard because of the difference in skill levels. But that doesn’t matter. Because while they’re playing to win, I’m playing for relationship.