“But of course, I feel so lucky to have this opportunity.” Without quite meaning to, I find myself including this sentence in emails to my agent, letters home to my family, conversations with our club director.
During my first season in Australia, I have to work to get paid. On Saturdays I catch the train to coach a 7 AM game. It is July, the dead of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. I earn $20 stalking the sidelines, cheering and instructing 9-year-old boys. I eat eggs and avocado from a Tupperware container. At 10 AM, I walk to a field where each weekend I play in the second division Women’s Premier League.
Our male counterparts in the same division can make more than $1,000 a week, and even in the seventh division, the men are often paid for each game.
I commiserate loudly with my teammate about this disparity. Our club director hears our complaints and asks, with an impossibly stiff smile, why it is that we measure our self-worth in money. I wonder how long he would stay at his job if he were compensated only with warm feelings.
Emily’s brother ended up on the national team. Her parents paid thousands of dollars for his training fees when Emily and her brother were teenagers. They would drive him two hours one way, four times a week, to train with an elite club. Emily herself wasn’t driven far. She played at local clubs and did not learn to volley a soccer ball until she was 15. She plays professionally now, so the buzzwords apply: perseverance, skill, and yes, luck. All of these got her where she is. And still she must practice this private cultivation of self-worth.
In September I am offered my first ever fully professional contract, for Australia’s top league. We are emailed PDFs, and the coaches hand out paper copies in the parking lot every night throughout preseason, like field-trip permission slips or report cards. I will be employed for one four-month season. I will make enough money to feed myself. One girl drops her contract in the weight room, and forty black-and-white pages, stamped and signed, sprawl across the floor. She gets down on her knees, embarrassed, and shuffles the papers back into a pile.
Four weeks into the season, our coach tells me he is retracting his offer. The one that is signed, the one that is stamped. Even at the highest level, women’s soccer is a lawless frontier. So, I think, I will learn to be an outlaw.
I tell the coach several times that I intend to fulfill my end of the contract, as, legally, he is also obligated to do. Dry-mouthed and angry, he stutters and begins to mumble insults. You can’t do that, he says.
I can tell he is not used to a woman standing up to him, to a female player who understands contract law. My teammate, shocked at my steadfastness, says she would have just taken the money and left.
In my dream I am in a wheelchair. I am on the sidelines asking why I can’t play, trying to stand and run as my coaches and peers urge me back toward the chair. I show them how I can walk and run in place. So why aren’t I allowed on the field? Out of nowhere, ten pairs of hands hold my body back. Nineteen hands push me down, shoving me back into the chair; one presses down on my mouth.
I wake from the dream with a jolt, as my dream leg kicks my real sheets off of the bed, imagining they are a soccer ball.
I leave Australia for Sweden. In the small town of Karlskoga, I will be paid, housed, and fed two meals a day. Looking over the contract with my agent I silently wonder about breakfast. I worry that if I ask for a third meal, or groceries, the offer will disappear. I feel so lucky to have this opportunity.
At times I really am overwhelmed with unmitigated gratitude. Ambition, negotiation, tough-minded feminism—these give way to moments of childish joy. Professional soccer had never been more than a private dream, a subconscious curiosity. Now I get paid to do something I have loved since I was 4 years old. Other than my family, is there anything else I have loved so unconditionally, for so long?
I hobble around the kitchen, searching for a remedy for my constant foot pain and my sore knee. I am home over the holidays for a three-month offseason. “Life is long, Georgia,” says my 60-year-old mother. She is coaxing me to retire, to move on to a pursuit that won’t disintegrate my body with such persistent logic. I want to cry. My soccer life feels so short. Because it is so short.
The voice in my head—what else? and what next?—increases in volume and frequency as I get older. At the end of each season I wonder if I will ever put on a jersey again. Like all but a few female players, I will not have the luxury of a career in soccer. I think of the final page of my first high school English essay, handed back to me the day after I missed a penalty kick in the state tournament: a girl who can write like this ought not to worry about goal-kicks.
David Foster Wallace wrote that elite athletes must be “blind and dumb” to be so mystically, one-sidedly, successful in sport. This, he explained, is not the “price” of the gift, but its “essence.” For female athletes—even some of those at the highest level, where players for the national team double as baristas or schoolteachers—the luxury of dumbness would be its own gift.
The life of the female athlete overseas is scattered and obscure, a private and difficult endeavor experienced by only a handful of people at a time. Most of us are not on a national team, and cable TV cameras are rare—so rare that they don’t usually appear at all.
My coach in Karlskoga speaks only Swedish, which after a week still sometimes sounds to me like Russian, or Italian, or German. I miss being yelled at. I have come to understand that I want commands—that I need to understand them.
It seems we are all talking about how we would like it to end. Quickly, or quietly, or by our own hands, or over a long period of time.
Emily has a logical answer for continuing to play. Soccer paid for her college and now supports her travels to new countries. She often mentions “going out on a high note.”
Jen embraces slow decline. When she was younger she was a defender in the top league (my teammate tells me she was a brutal opponent), but now she is sliding down the ranks, stepping away slowly. She plays in a fifth-tier league. She has children and talks about a future in coaching.
Hannah was 4 when she started playing. Her parents attend every game. Fear keeps Hannah going. “I don’t know what I would do without football,” she tells me, her hair pulled back in a blonde ponytail. I pray that she doesn’t get injured and am careful never to mention that someday she, too, will be too old. But not yet. She is only 17.
Robyn plays because she still wants to get better, maybe to be the best. She is a skilled athlete who knows she is special. But she is also running against the clock. She is 23 and has the dreams of a 15-year-old.
A coach once told me that she hoped I’d eventually find a way to give back to the game. I wasn’t sure what she meant. Had I stolen something from soccer? Had I been selfish?
In Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano writes that most Latin American players refer to the soccer ball as a woman. “This ball here helped me a lot,” one player says. “She or her sisters, right? It is a family to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. In my time on earth, she was the key. Because without her nobody plays at all.”
Emily says that my coach had it backwards. We have given soccer our time, and it is she who owes us for the hours of training and traveling, for abstinence and discipline. We have measured our entire self-worth in fleeting moments of elation.
I ask the clock how much time is left. It answers in monotonous pulses: there is still time, there is still time; or: it is nearly over. The amount of time that passes is inseparable from the immensity of my panic—they are one and the same.
With a comfortable lead, ninety minutes have the texture of a single day. Things happen with a calm inevitability. Events are as stable as a sunset, and consequences are modest. There is still time to erase, if necessary; to repeat, if you’ve already done the right thing; to find glory, if glory has thus far proved elusive.
When you are losing, players move in amber and time falls away with supernatural ease in big, hulking pieces. This rebellion against natural order can only provoke rage. I throw things, scream at the clock’s nonsense, try to reverse the irreversible.
I spent one summer in college working at a farm. At the end of every day I was exhausted, ready for sleep at 5 PM. In the last few hours of light I helped with the cooking, or read books, or juggled a soccer ball on the blacktop behind the white farmhouse.
I spent the following summer interning at an ad agency, applying my skills as an English major in an unclear way I still don’t understand. At the end of every day I was also exhausted. I’d sit down on the couch and eat like an animal, watching Seinfeld reruns before falling into a deep sleep.
To be exhausted from killing time, looking busy and sitting up straight, staring at computer and appearing attentive. Or to be exhausted from lifting, carrying, bending, and shoveling.
Wallace wrote that Tracy Austin’s autobiography Beyond Center Court “could have been about both the seductive immortality of competitive success and the less seductive but way more significant fragility and impermanence of all the competitive venues in which mortal humans chase immortality.” But fascination with immortality is a spectator’s fascination. Halls of fame and records and medals and posters belong to fans. Athletes do not mythologize the body in this way. What they do is navigate decay.
I spent another few summers working at a vineyard. At vineyards progress is measured by row. Here there were eighty rows in a bloc and fifteen blocs. At that speed, it would have taken me five hours and twelve minutes to trim each vine in this bloc. I moved steadily, obsessively, my head down. I didn’t notice the sun dip below the pond, or the rain cloud dusting the hill across the valley.
I can think of only one other place in my life where achievement is this ordered and simple, where failure and success are this distinct and their results so obvious and public.
I beamed when my boss asked how I could have possibly trimmed all of the vines so quickly.
Watch any striker celebrate scoring a goal. It is a lonely act, an impulsively solitary run. Strikers sprint away from their team. They run down the goal line, arms outstretched, head back, eyes closed. Perhaps they will shout, jump, slide. But their first instinct is always to move away. No one can touch them, because for a moment they don’t want to be touched.
Some carry babies or suck their own thumbs. Some praise God, crossing their chest, and others slide, wet turf ferrying them toward their fans. Cristiano Ronaldo’s celebration might be the most famous of all. I’ve seen children mimic it, seen silhouetted images of his broad stance painted on walls across Europe. Ronaldo runs, jumps, turns in the air, and plants, feet wide and arms pointed toward the ground in a reverent ritual to his own body.
A few months ago, I watched a Real Madrid–Atletico game on TV. Ronaldo scored in the final minutes to win. His teammates were quick to surround their star. They mobbed him, reaching for hugs and kisses. Still, even here, he jumped up, shaking them off as he rose to complete this gesture to himself.
The locker room in Australia resembled the locker room at my college. Each girl had a cage for her gear, a plaque with her name on it at the top. The same smell, too: a mix of grass and sweat, of very fresh air mixed with the stench of partly rotting cleats. Almost a year had passed since my last season in college, but every detail of the pregame ritual remained familiar, the contours vivid and particular.
Amanda put her socks on before she did anything else: first the right, then the left.
Jessica danced by herself in the hallway listening to her headphones. The first song on her list was Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” though we all agreed that Eminem had had his day.
Kate had an endless list of things she needed do before games—small tasks that didn’t take much time. A purple headband, tape on her right wrist, a short prayer, her hair pulled into a tight, neat bun like a ballerina’s.
Scout also did her hair, tying it in two braids. The team had won every game since she started wearing her hair like that.
Last June, during a game in Melbourne, I looked down on the field and noticed a bed of dried eucalyptus leaves beneath my feet. When I looked up, the sunset was obscured by these strange, spindly trees, the air scented with them.
In Sweden, my roommate and I agree that we have nothing in common. We spend our days walking circles around each other in the small kitchen and talking to our families behind the closed doors of our bedrooms.
But on the bus, as we discuss the game, we come alive. We should have played in a 4-3-3, we should have saved a substitute for later, the gaps were too big, our press was too low. The vocabulary we share is technical but full of meaning.
When I speak to my closest friends back home, I limit this language to its most elementary components: happy, sad, winning, losing.
Cole is the first person I love who also loves soccer. His love of the sport gives me permission to love soccer in a way boyfriends before him have not. With him I am uninhibited; I can also be dumb and happy, can also care only about the ball. And sometimes I think soccer helps me love him back. Soccer is a reminder of what it means to simply pursue happiness.
I get coffee with a professor and tell him I want to write about soccer. I try to speak without hesitation, doubt, or shame, all of which I feel. I tell him that the sport that I love is deeper and more interesting than most people think.
“Isn’t it just you that is interesting? Sports are just sports.”
I have a vivid memory of a practice during my sophomore year of high school. I can extract it from my incomplete and flickering catalogue of thousands of practices and games and fields.
It is damp, late enough to be dark. A blinding circle of artificial light illuminates the field. We can see nothing but a green rectangle of carpet-like grass. We are practicing at the University of Portland, the collegiate home of many of my childhood heroes. We practice one against one to goal. One touch, speed by, finish. This is my best drill. It makes me smile and laugh and bubble with confidence.
“How many sports are you playing right now?” He asks after pulling me aside.
I know what’s coming: the demand to consolidate, to constrain myself.
“If you committed yourself to soccer, you could be one of the greatest . . .” He pauses. “I’m telling you this so that ten years down the road you don’t wish that someone had.”
The word greatest rolls in my mouth. I wish it were quantified.
I respond with not much more than a nod, or many nods. I find myself slowly paralyzed by an unfamiliar combination of pride, confusion, regret, responsibility, and the distinctly childish feeling of not wanting to disappoint a coach, a mentor, a parent.
Another memory: I’ve just acquired my license—and with it, the right to drive myself to practice. That night, after the practice, I climb into my dad’s station wagon to drive home. I put on “Hoppipolla,” by Sigur Rós, the kind of song that might play in a movie as a car drives off a cliff. The car in front of me slows to a stop, but I am crying and no longer paying attention. I slam on my brakes just in time, but my two teammates behind me are too late. The jolt from the crash is a gift: it offers me a tangible, physical excuse for my crying, for my shaking and confusion. It calms me down. In the next two months I will have to decide whether to go to college on a soccer scholarship, or an academic one. On the brink of adulthood, I feel for the first time that I have at least two selves. I feel both of them distinctly.
There is no money in women’s sports. There is no future. I should get a real job. I should sacrifice more. I should move closer to my family. I should spare my body. I shouldn’t take sports seriously. I should acknowledge that I have wasted time.
Most of my patients, the doctor explains, have had very good results. Maybe a 95 percent success rate, he estimates. Though one did come back saying that he felt like he no longer knew what his body was.
We’re somewhere off the highway in a cold, wet, salt-stained Minneapolis suburb. The doctor’s office is bare. I try not to think about how much the nerve-killing injections are going to cost. He walks into the room without a knock. He has an ashen smear on his forehead. I confirm that it’s Wednesday.
The doctor’s movements make me feel like I’m in a sports movie, in the scene where the athlete makes a bad decision about drugs or friends or his future. He is wearing slippers.
I tell him that I want the shots. Sometimes it’s pleasing to feel such agency, to be so reckless in my treatment of my own body, to rebel against preservation.
The feeling of fire consumes my toes, then the feeling of nothing.
In Australia, our team arranged for a speaker to talk to us about leadership, a retired Australian rules football player. He was dressed in business clothes, a navy sweater, leather shoes and slacks. But his body still pulled tightly at some of the seams and gave the impression of strength. I only remember one thing he said: “Remember that who you are is separate from what you do.”