Friday, January 28, 2022

The beautiful game

A goalkeeper dives for a save. Goalies can never win a game, but get blamed when the team loses! Submitted

A goalkeeper dives for a save. Goalies can never win a game, but get blamed when the team loses! Submitted

I played soccer since the day I could walk and kick a ball all at the same time. We called the game “football” when I was growing up in Istanbul, Turkey. I only learned that the same game was called “soccer” in America when I was twenty years old. That transformation took place when I was offered, and accepted, a full soccer scholarship to attend the University of Maryland in the summer of 1969…

My first memories of playing organized soccer go back to when I was six or seven years old. We lived about a mile away from the main soccer stadium in Istanbul. During Saturday and Sunday afternoons when professional soccer teams played, we could hear the crowds roar from our second story apartment overlooking a small park. For kids of our age, there were no proper soccer balls available to play with, so we used whatever perfect, or as close to perfect round objects we could find and kicked them around, imagining ourselves to be one of the popular professional players of the day, playing in front of a large crowd a mile down the hill at the stadium. Finding a relatively flat empty lot in the neighborhood almost always prompted us to construct two goal posts using rocks, empty cans or discarded sacks. The ground was usually semi-rocky dirt as can be attested by the various scars I bear on my legs and thighs. These scars always bring back wonderful memories of sliding saves and successful dives.

It was 1956 and everything in the country was in short supply; sugar, butter, milk and of course soccer balls! The balls used to be made out of rough leather; rectangular pieces stitched together around a rubber bladder which was tucked under a set of laces. On those rare occasions when a real soccer ball was available, we cherished the moments, lovingly and gently hitting this wonderful object as if not to hurt it. There were a number of drawbacks to playing with a real soccer ball. One of them was the pesky older neighborhood kids who pushed us away and tried to play the game with their older friends. Unless you were the owner of the soccer ball or a member of his circle of immediate friends, you were not “chosen” to be on either team. You were relegated to the position of “ball boy,” retrieving the soccer ball from down the hill or keeping the neighborhood dogs away from the field by chasing them with a stick. Another drawback was rain. The ball would get wet immediately, absorbing the rainwater and weighing a ton, splashing around the muddy field. And “heading” the ball (hitting the ball with your head) was almost suicidal. When the rubber bladder in the stitched leather casing deteriorated after months of daily use, it would be taken out. Since there were no replacements available, the empty leather casing would be stuffed with old newspapers, t-shirts, socks and old towels. You could still play the game and kick this special football around even though it was as heavy as a piece of rock and would never truly get airborne. All of us developed strong legs and bumpy foreheads as a result of playing with this strange home-made ball.

One way to be chosen to play on one of the teams even though you were not one of the older kids or a friend of the owner of the soccer ball was to be a goalkeeper. For some reason, and for as long as I can remember, I was always a goalkeeper, or a “goalie” as it is commonly referred. This may have either been due to lack of my other football skills or my desire to be chosen to play in every neighborhood game, since no one else wanted to be the goalie!  Or

1950 US World Cup Team. Submitted photo

1950 US World Cup Team. Submitted photo

the fact that I have always been a little daring, a little more than crazy, and foolishly brave. Standing in the path of a football that may be coming at you at around 75-80 miles an hour and trying to catch it using your stomach, your chest and your hands was not considered to be too smart!  A goal-keeper can never win a game, but if the team loses, he is normally the person everyone blames!

I had played soccer for my middle school team, high school team and for an under-17 squad of a professional team until I graduated from high school.  Then, on that fateful day in the summer of 1969, I was approached by a college recruiter from America who asked me if I wanted to play “soccer” in the USA for a major college and get a free education. I could hardly believe what I was hearing! One cannot imagine what a shock this was! I could not believe the offer at first, but accepted it immediately. Who wouldn’t? The problem was getting my mother’s blessings to go thousands of miles away to America. My mother had always tried very hard to keep me away from this game. She would hide my football shoes; she would punish me for getting my clothes dirty; she would chastise the soccer-playing kids I befriended in the neighborhood. In short, she did everything in her power to keep her son away from this game she called “a low-class game for street boys.”

My father simply refused to acknowledge the fact that his son was a soccer player. But, here it was: an opportunity for me to play in the USA and go to college, all at the same time! After my mother finally said, “It is OK with me, but you must get your father’s permission,” I knew I was half way there. Convincing my father was not easy at all. A Mechanical Engineer with a PhD from Purdue, he did not care much about having his son attend the University of Maryland, play soccer and get a scholarship! It was the perfect storm.

When I asked for his permission, his response was, “If you can get there on your own, you are free to do it.” That was the “yes” answer I was looking for, and I started devising my plan to finance the trip to the USA.  After selling my bicycle, raiding my bank accounts, and selling my guitar and drum set, I got a job driving an American professor with poor eye-sight from Robert College of Istanbul to Switzerland. From there, I hitched a ride to London with a friend’s family and bought a round-trip ticket to NY on Pan Am. Arriving in New York on July 4, and after selling the return portion of my ticket back to Pan Am, I managed to get to Washington, DC with $100 in my pocket. I finally arrived at the University of Maryland on July 6.

Thus began the most wonderful four years of my life: getting a priceless education in Marketing Management, playing soccer for one of the best college teams in the country at the time, traveling around the USA as a soccer player/student, and finally meeting the love of my life, my wife Janice.

From the muddy soccer fields of Istanbul, playing with heavy leather soccer balls, sometimes inflated with air, sometimes filled with paper and old clothes, to the grass soccer fields of the University of Maryland, beautiful clean uniforms for each game, proper soccer shoes, and respect from teachers and friends, and getting a first class education has been like a wonderful dream. And all because of this wonderful game called soccer. It is indeed “the beautiful game.”

Currently chairman of Marco Island’s Code Enforcement Board, Tarik Ayasun has given many years of community service to various organizations.

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