There were the teams, each one with its unique personality. I had the privilege of seeing 10 teams play in Winnipeg: Nigeria, USA, Australia, Sweden, Thailand, Germany, China, New Zealand, Japan, and Ecuador. I often mused that teams would share the standard criteria for membership common to all World Cup teams, but that there also would be certain qualifications unique to each team. Having seen the Nigerian team dance and sing their way off of their bus on the first day they played, I can imagine that the interview for their team went something like this:
“Are you Nigerian?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Are you a woman?”
“I am that as well.”
“Are you an elite player? That is, are you really really good at soccer?”
“Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I excel at soccer.”
“That is all excellent. One more question: do you sing?”
“Sing? What kind of question is that?”
“Well, this is our team-specific qualification. You see, if you cannot sing, we might have to take a second look at your qualifications to be on the team. There may still be a way for you to play, but you would have to exhibit exceptionally strong playing skills if you cannot sing. In fact, without singing, you will have to be really, really, REALLY good in order to play for our team. After all, we’ll need some skill to replace your lack of singing.”
“I see. Well, yes, I can sing.”
“Very good, you are in! Welcome to team Nigeria.”
At the edge of the Winnipeg soccer pitch, just before the chute that took the players to their dressing rooms, was a gauntlet, of sorts. It was at this place that the pre-teen and teenaged fans, girls mostly, congregated to scream their adoration of the players as they exit the pitch. And they held things out, not to strike the players with, but to have them signed, touched, or simply acknowledged by the players: a jersey, a ball, a shoe, a program. And while all the players had to muster the psychological courage to walk or run this path, they did not have to participate actively in the ordeal, because the fans are positioned some two metres above the level of the pitch. Indeed, many players chose not to stop or even slow as they passed by, perhaps giving a weary wave or nod to the fans shouting their names if they chose to acknowledge them at all. However, occasionally a player would stop and sign one or two items before moving on. And I watched this happen game after game, witnessing the excitement on the faces of the fans, the elation of those who got some small personal touch from a player, and the dejection of those who were passed by without even a nod or a gesture.
“A few years ago, I decided one day to give something to my sons: my undivided and unrestricted attention for as long as they wanted. And so I approached them and said, ‘If we could do anything together today, what would it be?’ It was the middle of winter and we had built a small skating rink in the back-yard. They said, ‘Dad, come and play hockey with us.’ And so I did. I expected the game to last a few minutes, perhaps an hour, before they released me from my self-imposed commitment to them. But it went on and on. We played and we played. And after four hours, they finally said, ‘Let’s go back inside, Dad.’
“And you know what? They still talk about that day with fondness as the ‘best day we ever had.’ And it was simple: I gave to them until they were satisfied.”
I remembered that story as I watched the players exit the field, game after game. And I thought to myself, “What if a player just stopped what she was doing? What if she ignored the pain and effects, physical and psychological, from the game, and simply stood giving to the fans, all of the fans, what they wanted until there was no one left who wanted anything?” Perhaps that is not possible. Perhaps there are too many who want and too little to give. Perhaps.
Before this game, I had known nothing of the Swedish players. I had never heard names like Nilla Fischer or Olivia Schough, despite the fact that Fischer, at least, is a pretty big deal in Sweden. When it comes to elite female soccer players, my vocabulary is limited to Solo and Sinclair, so it is not surprising that I had no idea who these people were. I love the women’s game, even more than the men’s, but sadly, there is little opportunity to watch elite women’s soccer in Canada. Indeed, I must say that I know little more of Fischer and Schough today than I did on that game day. Wiki pages are pretty bare, and what I can find on the Internet tells me little of them as people. But, as with many of the experiences that have become my repertoire of stories, it is the short, meaningful encounters with others that prove them heroes or villains. It is those fragments of time that make me stop and say, “That was impressive.”
Nilla Fischer is hard to miss in a crowd. She is tall, for a woman, and she has the bright blonde hair that is so common amongst her country-men and women. But, as I caught sight of her out of the corner of my eye, I found myself wondering once again, “What if a player chose to stay, and simply give and give?”
Fischer started first, from what I recall. She signed Swedish flags passed down to her from the stands. Then jerseys and programs. And she carefully caught smart phones tossed to her, and, lining up her face with that of the owner’s and others in the stands, she took one selfie after another. Of course, the American fans, seeing that she was there, were instinctively drawn to this woman who acknowledged their presence. So they, too, in even greater numbers, began to pass down phones and scarves and shoes and, yes, pieces of fruit: I saw one girl pass her a banana! And Fischer signed each item, took each picture, and carefully passed everything back.
And so, I got the answer to my question, “What if…?” On top of that, I experienced the most profound highlight of my tenure as a volunteer. I must admit it was the most impressive thing I witnessed throughout the four match days in the Winnipeg stadium. I saw a bunch of fans—most of whom, like me, had not even been aware until that match who Nilla Fischer or Olivia Schough were, and some of whom perhaps still do not know—experience two professional soccer players stopping specifically for them, and in those few minutes giving of themselves until everyone was satisfied.
I hope that those young girls who experienced this gift will pause, some day, to remember that giving does not take all of your time, just some of it. To reflect that those who experience whatever you have to give them will be the richer for it. And that you will too.
His latest book, What I Learned from Cancer, is available in electronic form at his payhip.com site: http://bit.ly/wilfc-ebook. Physical copies of the book are available at the Prompters to Life web store, where shipping on copies of the soft cover edition is always free (except to the international space station). To order a paper copy of the book, visit: http://prompterstolife.com/shoppers