Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Capitalizing on a long weekend to confront adolescent insecurities

My roommate commented the other day, "Cam, you're running away from playing soccer." Despite my indignant response to his allegation, he was absolutely correct. I'm all about cultural immersion and trying new things, but soccer has never been my "thing." Like any American youth, I played the game growing up, just never very well. The last nail in the coffin of my already lackluster career was placed when I was literally the only 14 year-old cut from a group of forty boys trying out for the spring traveling league, (they couldn't justify placing me in either the A or the B team). Apart from effectively convincing me to seek out my talents in other activities, such experiences soured my relationship with "the futebol" and I've been disinclined to play much ever since.

In the States, this was never really an issue. Here, this is an issue.

My repertoire of lame excuses for turning down invitations to pick-up soccer games has failed thus far to effectively convince anyone that I'm not a total weirdo for not falling over myself to play this sport whenever I have a free moment. My two most common responses to the "do you like futebol" question are typically:

"I LOVE soccer, watching it is super fun!" and "I like playing soccer, I just prefer individual sports." Translation: I have the coordination of a newborn fawn, so when I choose to look like a fool and exercise, I do it by myself.

The conversation then is usually doused with another layer of emasculation when I'm asked if anyone in my family plays the game; "oh yeah, my little sister just finished a summer playing on a boys' team in Paraguay..." My sibling is also the reason why my other backup story: "soccer was forbidden in my household because my mother said it was the Devil's game," was never particularly believable. I can't even blame not wanting to participate on culture differences, since the only other American male on the trip played through high school and has got some skills. Whenever you read short or stereotypical descriptions of Brazil, the obsession with futebol is almost always followed by some description of the country's illustrious Carnival celebrations. Yet, why am I never asked if I like flamboyant street parties every time I meet someone new?

I know what you're thinking, Brazil is the perfect place to confront my soccer issues! While impossible to find a place more passionate about the game, the self-proclaimed "soccer capital of the world" is also a rather intimidating place to start playing again. If I'm going to pick up some sport, I want to do it with other spastic nerds not a bunch of baby Pelé's.

Anyone who's read thus far would agree that it was time for my pity party to end. I choose to come to Brazil, I can hardly act surprised that I'm being asked to play soccer. The more important question is what pride I'm afraid I'm going to lose; I spend most of the waking day looking foolish. Every time I arrive at class in shorts, sandals and a t-shirt while everyone else is in jeans and winter jackets, accidentally order something crazy in a restaurant, or just speak in general for that matter, I'm acting out the "weird foreigner" routine that every exchange student does so well. I hardly have a reputation at stake. So, this past Saturday, I bit the bullet and went with Felipe to play with his friends.

For a country that loves this sport, it's shockingly difficult to find a place to play in Juiz de Fora. We, for example, had to rent out an indoor court since fields, even small ones, are expensive and hard to book. These court games, called "futsal" (foo-chee-sau) instead of futebol, are definitely different from the game that I remember as middle schooler. Like indoor soccer, everything is super compact, moves really quickly and the ball is smaller but heavy. As a result, the game favors your ball-handling skills. Perfect....

I was telling people that I would be a valuable asset on their teams since my soccer muscles should be well rested after my eight year hiatus, but my poor delivery of an already weak joke put an end to those antics. Anyway, I had more important things to concentrate on than my thinly veiled attempts to remind everyone around me that I hardly ever play and my skills were speaking just fine for themselves. Thankfully, the upside to such a small court was that I was constantly running into people and about half of the time the individuals I was getting in the way of were from the other team. My performance peaked my first time as goalie when someone kicked that heavy damn little ball right towards my face. I suppose they were probably aiming for the general goal area, though this worked out well since my reflexes to protect myself also prevented them from scoring.

In short, the whole thing turned out exactly as was to be expected. I played like a person that doesn't play soccer very often, and everyone was super nice, supportive and generally seemed glad that I was there. Brazilians simply love soccer; and showing interest and excitement for something that they feel passionately about is almost always going to be received positively, regardless of my skill level. Though not an important part of my life, this sport is an integral aspect of the culture here and it was overdue that I accept the gracious invitation to participate. So, I think I'm going to start playing with this group on Saturdays. I'll let you know when I go professional.

My photo and video updates are from this weekend. Today is both Brazil's and Garrett's birthday, so we got a four-day break from school. We started the mini-vacation off by going to the "German Party" on Friday. Brazil has a large population of German descendants, especially in the southern chunk of the country, so in one of the neighborhoods here they had an appropriately themed street party. On Saturday, we went to our professor's birthday party at one of the clubs here in Juiz de Fora. Yesterday, we had a big churrasco (barbecue) for Garrett's birthday. All of Felipe's family is in town, and Felipe and his girlfriend have been planning this for weeks, so it ended up being quite the event. It was a super fun weekend and I've really enjoyed getting to know my extended Brazilian family.



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