From my mid-20s until my mid-30s I played recreational soccer with friends. it’s a game I played as a kid, but because my family moved a lot, there wasn’t a lot of experience with it until a friend from college suggested we put together a pickup team, with stragglers from school, work, and wherever. It’s a sport that I adore playing, and could easily play every day of my life. It is not, however, a sport that is everlasting for everyone.

First came those of us with pre-existing injuries. One regular, Jason, who was a new father, admitted that he wanted to spend what was left of his deteriorating ankle (hello, soccer) playing with his son, and not with a bunch of strangers on dodgy community fields. Can’t blame him. The second wave, perhaps the most widely experienced, came when we entered our 30s; people settled down, got married, streamlined their careers, started families, bought houses. That nearly did it. I was still organizing pickup soccer past my mid-30s with a ragtag membership of acquaintances and friends-of-friends. Injuries happened. I sprained my ankle something fierce, which meant there was no one to organize the games while I was in rehab; another of us, Erik, received a concussion due to an accidental running-into with another player.

By the age of 40 everything had changed. The only soccer to be had was through privately run recreational sports organizations, which can be fun in terms of meeting new people, but dear god let me tell you this: no one wants to play a soccer match at 10pm on a Sunday night.

I turned to running, as I missed the workout. I bought an introductory pair of running shoes and started by going around a few blocks of where I lived. I remember sitting on the front steps of my house, sweating and heaving, and having our neighbour, Mrs. Fu, look at me and comment “If you did that more often you probably wouldn’t be so tired.” Thanks. I measured my distance first in city blocks. And, gradually, I measured it in kilometres. I remember feeling that 2 kilometres was ridiculously long; as well, the challenge of what goes on in your head when you’re running: the anxious thoughts about whether I could finish what I started.

Everything changed once I was able to get to 5k.

But first, let me make something clear: I’m not into gadgets, I don’t wear headphones, I don’t bother with biofeedback gizmos on my wrist. I look at my analog watch when I start, and then look at it when I’m done. I measure the distances of my runs by using Google Maps on my laptop. When I tell some people this they look at me as if I was talking about living in a shed without an outhouse. For me, there is an experiential quality about running: I get to see, hear, smell, feel the world around me — good and bad. The last thing I need is to be listening to a podcast about unsolved murders.

It took me at least 2 years to get to 5k, and I should say that I wasn’t on any sort of schedule to do so. I just listened to my body, and pushed when I thought I was ready, not unlike how someone decides to add another 10lbs to their squat bar at the gym. The increments can take months, and the nice thing about starting out running is that you’re not really competing with anyone (yet), so there’s no pressure to “achieve” much. Once I hit 5k, I was able to get to 10k within a few months. And once I hit 10k it was like standing on a fucking mountaintop.

This is a good juncture to mention that not everyone, younger or older, can do this. Running can tax your body in ways that are not always healthy. And not everyone’s bodies are able to be pushed hard. Some people’s bodies are not able to be pushed, period. I mention this because I would hate for someone to read this and feel that, because they aren’t able to run, that this makes their experience of life any less. I’m just using my legs because I got ’em, and they work, for now. Running is also easier for white people than it is for racialized people; and it’s easier for men than it is for women. And by easier I mean you are less likely to be physically or sexually targeted. In other words, I’m writing this from a place of privilege.

I started joining races in 2015. The psychological complexity of being in a corral of other runners is fraught. I find the complexity of running in any sort of competitive context to be fascinating: watching your pace, staying within respectful distance of others, passing and being passed by others, not getting freaked out when you think you’ve hit the 3k mark only to pass a sign saying 2k; oh yeah, and not breathing like you’re being chased by a dog. I’ve done 10k, 8k, 5k, and a half marathon (which I did, kinda stupidly, only ten days after a cyclist collided into me and fractured a few ribs).

Running, for me, is a through line to body awareness. I don’t feel like a brain floating in a jar when I’m running. I can audit my body when I’m running, interrogating what it is that’s feeling tired if I’m worriedI can’t finish. I get to experience the outdoor world, and be part of it in an intense way that can sometimes feel profound. I can be alone with my thoughts. It can also be a way to set precedents for working with self-doubt (hello, half marathon). To be frank there’s also some gross aspects to the body awareness part; for example, learning to predict your bowel movements after eating a meal so that you aren’t finding yourself experiencing GI pain in the middle of your race. And I won’t get into all the bloody mess that happens with blisters on your feet.

When I bought my first pair of “I’m taking this seriously” running shoes at a local shop, I mentioned to the owner how I used to play soccer but had no one to play with anymore, thus my interest in running. He told me he had heard that a lot from other soccer veterans, and in that moment I felt heard and seen (though I realized after it was also saying good-bye to soccer in many ways). It wasn’t a big gesture he made, and while I wouldn’t say I felt part of a club (not that I would want to be in one), nonetheless I felt part of a kinship. I’m 51 years old now, and I’m faster than I was when I was 45; I push myself, and yet I also keep myself from pushing so hard that I endanger my body from being able to meet day-to-day needs. There is a quotidian aspect to body awareness that comes with running that I deeply appreciate: knowing when to push, knowing when to give other people space, knowing when to back off, and knowing when to give everything you’ve got in your engine in the dying moments when you see the finish line.



I’d almost given up on pick up soccer.

In Toronto, if you’re looking to play soccer on a semi-regular basis you’d have better luck finding an Ayahuasca ceremony than a game that starts before 9pm an hour away from you. I suppose credit is due to the fact that soccer is popular (this wasn’t always the case, and there was a humiliating period of time in the late 90s where more people were playing “Ultimate” frisbee than soccer). However, finding people to play with casually — the sort of pick up game I played when I first moved to the city — has gone by the wayside in lieu of organizations such as Toronto Sport and Social Club and apps such as OpenSports.

I ran a co-ed pick up game for several years. This was after several previous migratory years of word-of-mouth and occasionally stable runs with a group of friends and acquaintances at locations across the city (note: if you want to discover a city, this is a very good way). Back then there was no leader per se, however, as good as that sounds I feel that either this part, or someone electing themself as the certifiably wrong leader, led to the instability. The pick up game I ran was fairly stable: Sundays in Stanley Park. Sometimes we were hungover, sometimes we treated it with the reverence of Mass. I met some very interesting people over those years, from a variety of backgrounds, and I’m pretty sure that, beyond fresh air and exercise, it was these relationships that contributed to helping me find myself. A secure base, as we say in the therapy biz.

These things don’t last long. They just don’t. Whether it’s a writers’ group (which I co-ran for 9yrs) or pick up soccer, sometimes things just don’t work in the long-run. Democracy kinda sucks when it’s on the level of things like this: people don’t show without giving notice, or want to change the start time to suit their own needs. In a fictional country, as well as mandatory military service, there should also be the option of organizing a regular pick up sports game (as well as the option of working in a retail environment during the Christmas season, particularly in the Holt Renfrew concourse).

For the last 10 years, for better or worse, I’ve been involved with associations like TSSC in order to get my soccer fix — organizing things sucks, and why not pay for the privilege of walking onto a semi-pro pitch if you can, and not the community fields pockmarked with holes and strewn with tree branches and dog shit, using gym bags as goal posts. But I kinda lost my religion around these organized games over time. They were inconveniently scheduled (I can go into great detail about what it’s like to play soccer at 11pm on a Sunday) and if you weren’t able to put together a hand-selected team to register then you were individually thrown into a randomized team, which was basically admitting you weren’t going to win many games due to lack of familiarity with each other (that is, if you got along). I hated forgetting — because life — about each sign-up deadline only to discover that it was booked solid, then putting myself on a sub list.

One day, a bartender who is also a reader of mine, commented on my Ajax scarf (this was versus Juventus in the Champions League quarter finals, first round). We spoke a bit about playing pick up, and he mentioned that there was a bunch of people that met @ 3pm on Sundays at ________ Park. I didn’t know what to expect, and yet I secretly hoped it could work out. What with my partner on an extended trip across the Atlantic, I found myself available, and along came the first Sunday, and it was warm and sunny…so I went, secretly hoping magic would happen.

I had to stick my neck out. It looked like a bunch of older men at first, and I wondered if I’d intruded into a more private event, but as people showed up I could see this was a regular thing that had been going on for years, that travelled on word-of-mouth only. The range of ages went from 20-something to 50-something. Unlike a lot of pick up I played when I moved to Toronto there was no prima donna behaviour, although there were comically long periods where the older Latinx organizers argued over the size of the field-of-play and other distractions. On the sideline was a group of “fans,” friends of the older players, who brought beer and cheered any runs at goal. My Spanish has grown, let’s put it that way.

It was disorganized and basic, and I loved it. I instantly appreciated the casual nature of the group, their insistence that I bring people with me next time, the beer that one of the players handed me afterward. Everyone was there to have a good time, and there was to be a BBQ afterward (which I was unable to stay for). I can’t put it much more plainly, but this is the Toronto I adore. These are my people.


Ask The Zombies in July, or, How Are The Dutch Going To Do at Euro 2012?

In less than two weeks, various qualifying teams from throughout Europe are going to get together in Poland and Ukraine for Euro 2012. It’s like the World Cup, but without most of the World. Still, some of soccer’s (which I will call football going forward) greatest stars will be competing for glory.

Now, about the Dutch. Yes, the country is called (provoking visions of clouds and grey veils) the Netherlands or, more quaintly (insert visions of tulips and blonde farm wives in wooden shoes), Holland. But, whether you are a fan or an opponent, they are often referred to as “the Dutch”.






The Dutch met Spain in the World Cup finals in 2010. It should have been the seminal moment of my football-loving/Dutch-cheering life, but (see here for more) I was turned-off by their strategy, which – with the exception of some honest-to-God deserved victories against mortal foes such as Brazil – seemed kind of cynical.

There’s winning and then there’s winning. The Dutch, since the early 70s, have always emphasized beautiful football: flowing, sexy, unpredictable, and effective. Unfortunately, since World Cup 98, that effectiveness came into question as a combination of generational talent turnover (Ruud van Nistelrooy was not exactly Dennis Bergkamp) and some daft coaching decisions (chief in my mind, Louis van Gaal’s decision to squander a two-goal lead against Portugal in the WC 2002 qualifiers) created an existential crisis. Beautiful football wasn’t getting results.

Continue reading “Ask The Zombies in July, or, How Are The Dutch Going To Do at Euro 2012?”


All That Glitters Isn’t Oranje

It should come as no surprise that my postings have been less frequent, in proportion to the success or lack thereof of the Dutch at the World Cup, which has just (mercifully) ended.

First: I’m happy we made it to the Final.

Second: I’m happy we lost (even though I wanted us to win at the time).

Allow me to explain: I will always support Oranje, but that doesn’t mean I have to suspend my critical faculties while doing so. It also doesn’t mean I am living in a nostalgic cloudbank in which Holland must either play soccer like the Kirov ballerinas dance or else they are “cynical” – a word bandied about by once-every-four-years-I-pay-attention-to-soccer pundits.

In case I haven’t beaten this point enough, my Oranje is the team of 1998. It always will be. They were beautiful to watch (take a look at my Ryeberg essay if you haven’t already) and most aficionados consider that squad the greatest team of the competition, regardless that they lost to Brazil in the semi-finals. The thing is, if you accept that, then you must also accept they were the very same team who flamed-out against Italy in Euro 2000 in the quarters, in perhaps one of the most humiliating games I’ve seen us play: same squad, folks. How’s that for beauty?

The toughest question in the world if you are a Dutch international soccer player: What can you do when the public, the pundits, the former stars from the Golden Age all want to see you play ballet if playing ballet doesn’t win anything? Don’t get me wrong: I like the Oranje ballet – I am one of those people who can walk away from a loss, still chuffed that we played “as we should”. I do side with author David Winner’s thoughts about Dutch soccer philosophy, as laid out in his (brilliant) book, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. But inevitably you want to win something, and the only silverware the Dutch have is the Euro title in 1988.

This brings us to the present. Sadly. Sadly, because for the most part Oranje did not live up to the philosophy we had come to World Cup 2010 expecting. Under the direction of Bert van Marwijk, they took a detour: individual beauty, sure, when necessary, but collectively less a ballet than an assembly line with a very narrow directive: win, above all else. And they did. They were rusty at first and their games, outside of pockets of that ol’ Clockwork Oranje we hoped to see, were not pretty, but they won, and continued to win. Lord, I wanted them to win, too – I was a willing enabler.

When the final against Spain came, I was a nervous wreck. I can only imagine how it must have been in Holland, for those making their way to the Museum Square in Amsterdam where the games were shown for the public. They had come so far, had been through so much, for so many years: 1974, 1978, the glimmer of 1998, the disappointment of missing 2002. So much baggage that you wanted them to win just to shake off the voodoo of the past.

But as I got prepared that morning I visualized what it would be like if we won, if for the first time ever we won the Cup. Instead of tears of joy, I have to tell you, I saw that it would have felt as if we had cheated. As if in winning, we had not done so as ourselves but as a cunning machine, as if someone had invented a “Dutch Soccer Team” to take our place. I cannot describe how difficult it was to deal with that: to stare at a historic vindication within reach of your fingertips, knowing simultaneously there was something inherently inauthentic about it. In fact, had we won, I fear the “victory” would have irrevocably punctured the heart of Dutch soccer, as opposed to the bittersweet reality I live with now: we lost, Dutch soccer is merely dented. Coach van Marwijk’s corporatist approach has been repudiated, that is for sure. What I don’t know is who or what, philosophically speaking, has been vindicated, since we are bridesmaids once again.

Perhaps it is our souls? I can’t speak for yours, but mine is in a better if not exactly comfortable place right now.


Film Review – Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

[july 13 – I’ve updated the information on the game played in the film. Thanks “SM”!]

I don’t normally do film reviews – so many other places provide this (for better or worse) – but I thought the following would be of interest…

When I heard that the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was playing a one-night show at the Bloor Cinema, I couldn’t resist getting tickets for myself, my wife, and my good friend – let’s call him “SM”.

My friend and I both work in film/TV and both are big soccer fans, so there was potentially a lot here for us to appreciate (or at least make fun of afterwards). I’d separately heard the Mogwai soundtrack beforehand and thought it was interesting – very meditative. A short synopsis on the film: it recounts French soccer star Zenedine Zidane’s club game with Real Madrid, in a match with Spanish cup rival Villareal on April 23rd, 2005.

After the screening, we stood on the street, slowly coming to the conclusion that we all had problems with the film. Yet, rather than write it off as a “bad film” and drink with purposeful abandon, we found ourselves talking about it – trying to make sense of what it was that did or didn’t work.

What follows are a set of emails I exchanged with “SM”, which I feel demonstrates better than a formal film review our thoughts on the film. I am “MC” and my wife shall be known as “G”.

From SM:

I now think that I really didn’t like the film beyond a technical
appreciation, especially for the sound design. I have slept on it and feel
fairly strongly about this.

It could be that I brought too much baggage to the film, or perhaps as
“G” suggested, it didn’t lend itself well to the theatre environment
(even if only on that day). But during the film I found myself missing the
wide screen coverage of the action at least for some sense of geography. Or perhaps more variance on the close up detail of ZZ – ie, exaggerated time stretching of actions to capture muscle tone/movement. Perhaps something to break the tedium. And that was perhaps the biggest frustration – the tedium. If the point was to study someone performing a Sisyphean task so closely that you really couldn’t tell what the task was at any given time, then that mission was accomplished. But for me it didn’t inform or entertain but left me detached, distracted and unmoved.

Also, it became a side issue to see what kind of possible image rights
issues they may have had to deal with. The animated sideboards were all in English – Kellogg’s “Frosties”, Gillette razors. In Madrid? Perhaps that is so. But it stuck in my mind. As did the peripheral existence of Michael Owen. I’m positive I saw him running on the fringes of the screen, but no image of him straight on lasted long enough for recognition, neither did his jersey name or number. But there was a lot of everyone else. And so I started to wonder, hmm, what if some players were not willing to lend their image to the film? But I don’t think I should have been thinking that. In fact I was frustrated that I was doing that. But the film left me little else to think or feel.

From MC:

I do agree with your after-sleep assessment – in particular what you wrote about rights clearances. I must admit, the exact same thing was going through my head the entire time: did they need permission from Beckham? Did they need permission to show the Frosted Flakes ad? What about Zidane’s clothing sponsorship (Adidas)? However, two questions arise from this:

1) If we’re asking ourselves those questions in the first place, is that not indicative that the film has problems?

2) Again, to take the “naive media soul” approach, would the average person ask those questions? Are we being too savvy/media-aware? Mind you, considering our tastes and how potentially this film could have catered to them, if *we* were thinking about rights clearances what the hell was the Annex chick with the $200 haircut and the flip flops focusing on (that would be the “proverbial Annex chick…” not anyone in particular)?

I must say that I would like to see it again (not soon) on home video. I think that, aesthetically speaking, it would/could be a better experience seeing it in an intimate environment.

At least we’re talking about it! Maybe the director just wanted to make something people could chat about?? Eh?

From SM:

Yeah, but the director of “The People Under The Stairs” had me talking after the film too. Just not anything I can repeat in mixed company.

The “naive media soul” might not drift to the kinds of thoughts we were (image rights) but perhaps instead might think “do I need to pick up some eggs?” or “hey I need to Lemon Pledge my tables this weekend” to help fill in the void left by watching this film

on imdb there’s two polar opposite reviews (see below)


“This is the most affecting, profound piece of documentary film I have seen in years. That said, it is a challenging work that doesn’t fully reveal it’s power until well into the viewing. As much a meditation as a film, the net effect is similar to that of watching “Winged Migration”. Watching the simple, relatively unaffected actions of Zidane over the course of a match begins to work on you. I pondered politics, commercialism, world conflict, fame, economics, the media and more over the course of my first viewing. There is no easy way to encapsulate the overall feeling, the ebbs and tides experienced while watching the film, but afterward you will view the world in as if with new eyes. It is also a masterpiece technically. I couldn’t help but admire the precise and exquisite sound design and music, how they blended to the action and psychological state being portrayed to the moment. The cameras seamlessly take the viewer from sprawling, epic points of view to the most intimate. The use of subtitle without voice over narration used to portray Zidane’s thoughts is nothing short of revolutionary. This film may disappoint a soccer fan simply seeking a piece of sports entertainment, but for a lover and student of film it is groundbreaking, important work that must be seen.”

“The guys who made this movie got it so wrong. They actually show Zidane as a tired static player and not the football god he is. Zidane is my idol for many years and what makes him a great player is: 1. his absolute vision of whats going on on the football field 2. His abilities to make the players around him better. Yes, he’s got amazing control of the ball and elegant movements that wont put to shame even a ballet dancer. But thats not it. For example, to show the amazing abilities of the conductor Zubin Mehta, you wont film him waving his hands for an hour of a silence movie. You must record his orchestra and show the connection between the conductor’s brilliance and its outcome on his “TEAM” of musicians. The same goes to Zidan. It is pretty obvious that the film makers here, do not understand football and what really made Zidane the amazing player he is. They showcase a too long, too static performance, mostly in close ups. Most of the time you don’t know where Zidane is located on the pitch, or how does he reacts to the opponents formation or plays. Sorry. Nice try but the results are poor and boring.”


The frustrating thing is, I agree and disagree with both of them. The first guy is a bit lofty with his praise, but I agree with his assessment of it being a technical masterpiece (well maybe not that high up, but you know). I don’t however think “it is groundbreaking, important work that must be seen.” I miss not really being able to see the attributes that the second reviewer describes. But I think too that it would then verge on “highlight reel” stuff.

I wondered if it would have been more engaging if this had been a vocal midfield general like Roy Keane or someone who saw more of the ball (maybe a Beckham). I really would like to hear an honest opinion of a professional footballer to this film. Not that they’re better players, but perhaps there’d be more range of emotion? And maybe that’s what I was missing. By the time Zidane’s emotions showed (smiling with Roberto Carlos, getting in the brawl), it was too late; I had stopped caring at half time.

From MC:

I fall between the two points also.

I do think there is a mantric quality to the film which, combined with the half-time segment and the sound design, provides a larger (albeit arguably more “wispy”) palette for the viewer – it becomes less about soccer and more about…well, who the fuck knows. Spin the wheel. However, this last point starts getting more into the territory of Art and Art Appreciation – the lack of a fixed message isn’t the point. However, not to let the director off the hook, I’m not entirely sure his intent was clear or if it was, whether it was achieved.

On the other hand, yes, anything else probably would’ve become a sports-porn highlight reel. I wondered if, instead of Zidane it would’ve been more effective to choose someone else – either a name or another position – but that too poses just as many problems. Zidane isn’t a Chatty Cathy and his largely mute performance works because it’s all about his focus or lack thereof. You could say the same about most goaltenders, but then again if you thought the focus on Zidane was static, imagine someone standing within two goalposts for 90m would be? Keane…that would be interesting. Certainly more dynamic, but would it have the same quiet grace and reflectiveness?

Yes – I would like to have a pro footballer’s perspective on the film. I’m hoping the Guardian or someone else thinks of this. Better still would be a moderated discussion between the director, a professional footballer, and an interviewer. Unfortunately this would only ever be shown on television in France. Still…

From SM:

Yes yes and yes.

The intention was unclear.

The quiet grace and reflectiveness works for a moment for me. But it became ironically grating over time. A shorter film would probably achieve more.
Or more accurately, if this approach were applied to a smaller scene in a film where the protagonist is followed like this in a climactic match or just an fairly important match this would be quite effective as a montage.

Reminds me, if memory serves correct, of the Raging Bull fight where LaMotta finally wins the title – the camera stays mostly on him/his face throughout the fight. But with Raging Bull, there had been a connection to the subject previous to this – mostly thanks to it being a narrative form and that the subject was an expressive actor – as well as throughout.

With the Zidane film one’s only connection was any expectations you brought to the film based on your knowledge of the subject from your reality (World Cups 98 thru 2006 etc etc). And the silent disconnect experienced here can only lead to a let down from that expectation.

Here’s the stick, you want one last go?

I decided not – I think we both had our turns at it. Yet, irregardless of whether Zidane was a success or failure, any film which can elicit these sorts of thoughts is worth a mention.