MALINOVO, Slovakia – It was so sad, the way it ended. On the football pitch, exhausted. Dreams crushed. They would not be champions, after all.
I’m not talking about Slovakia’s heroic football team, which succumbed to Holland on Monday, 2-1, four days after pulling the greatest upset of the 2010 World Cup.
I’m talking about the traumatic finish to my 8-year-old son’s football tournament on Sunday. Devastating.
A postcard-perfect afternoon, in this village outside Bratislava, we cheered from the sidelines of a sun-drenched field as our team of 7- and 8-year-olds squared off against three other teams.
When my kid started playing, he was as fluid with the ball as a newborn giraffe. I thought his true calling in football was as scorekeeper.
A year later, remarkably, he bounds after it gracefully. Like an antelope. Oh, and he’s the only one in eyeglasses, which miraculously survived the season intact. In the process, he was named most improved player.
During the tournament’s first 30-minute game, with our boys ahead and feeling giddy, their English coach understatedly advised: “Win this one … and the next two … and you’ll win the championship!”
They won the first, 3-0. “We are the champions!” they sang. Prematurely, I thought.
They then won the second, by an identical 3-0. We fathers were feeling pretty good, too. Since our kids attend an international school, we hail from all directions. One shouted encouragement to his son in Finnish; another, in German; a third, Japanese; a fourth, Danish; and a fifth, um, in Australian.
The opponents were mostly Slovak, with some ethnic Hungarians mixed in. One coach caught my attention, as he seemlessly barked commands to his squad in both languages.
It was a bad omen, though, when I saw our sons ogling the largest trophy. As if they’d already won it. In the final, they’d face the other 2-0 team. For that trophy.
Our boys were cocky enough that, well, I couldn’t help but think the moment was ripe for an important life lesson: about losing. I pushed such pessimism from my thoughts.
The other team, also from Bratislava, was quite good. Our kids looked winded. They were down, 1-0, at the half. Our coach then announced a “tactical” decision.
Our talented half-Czech, half-Canadian goalie would be inserted up front, to rejuvenate the offense. Replacing him in goal would be … our son.
I glanced at my wife, apprehensive. “That’s a lot of pressure on him,” we agreed.
He donned the black goalie’s jersey, looking like a natural. I camped out a few feet away from him, by the goalpost: to take photos and shout encouragement.
He’s been in a few real matches before, but this was different. Right behind his goal, not five meters away, a couple dozen parents of the other team were leaning over the railing, yelling really loudly, right in my son’s ear, urging on their side. That was a first for him, and I saw confusion etched on his face.
I responded in kind: it was the loudest I’d ever yelled on behalf of one of my kids. I was getting into it.
Several minutes in, we scored to tie. My son did a jig in front of his goal.
“Let’s hold ‘em right here!” I yelled at him. Let me tell you, when you’re unsure about your son’s goal-tending abilities, there’s nothing more frightening than to see the other side galloping right at him.
A line drive, fired to the left of my son’s ear. Glancing off his fingertips, much too powerful to stop.
He seemed stunned at his mortality. I tried to reassure him: no one could stop that one. “Try to forget it, let’s move on. It’s only one goal, you’re still in it!” He didn’t look like he was forgetting it, though.
Then, another attack. I shouted encouragement to my son’s German defenders. It was no use. The attack pushed forward. A shot toward goal … punched away!
“Yeaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!! That’s the way it’s done!” Boy, was I fired up.
But their offense was relentless. Another missile launched into my son’s corner. The scorer slid on his knees, celebrating like he was Brazilian.
For my son, though, several more saves. We scored another, but that was it: 3-2.
The only thing on my mind was precisely what I did: I ran out there, hoisted up my son, kissed him, said how proud I was of him. He’d held his own. It could have been much worse.
My eight-year-old was having none of it. “We lost because of me!”
The second-place trophy, then free hotdogs, soda and cake with his teammates, cheered him up some. But on the drive home, he grew inconsolable. It really ate at him. “We lost because of me!”
It’s a team sport, I told him. You don’t win because of one player, just as you don’t lose due to one player. I also told him how proud I was of the fact his coach had enough confidence to put him back there, the team’s fate in his hands. That was too abstract for him.
It went on that way the rest of the night, until he fell asleep.
Twenty-four hours later, Slovakia’s footballers exited the World Cup, albeit nobly. And all I could think was, how many fathers wanted to scoop up these boys, tell them they were proud of them?