The Pain Behind Soccer

Soccer is the world's most popular sport, but it can also haunt some people's lives. (Photo Courtesy Marlon Dias/ Flickr)

 By Ryan Fleming

When you think of the game where you find yourself besotted, the first images or early childhood memories are those of victory – a beautiful goal, a cup triumph – or something more personal, perhaps. For those growing up in soccer-crazed countries around the world, soccer is a not merely a game, but a way of life; this we know and realize. What’s uncommon and rather rare are the tragedies that happen everyday around the sport that are seemingly lost in the dark.

This past weekend I met a man from Germany. A tall, blond man with a smile that dominated his face when put on display. He moved to the United States decades ago. Naturally, I brought up the World’s Game right away, figuring, rather embarrassingly that this foreigner could keep up a conversation about Philip Lahm, Manuel Neuer, Mario Götze or any other German up-and-comer for hours without effort. While holding his stein, he sighed, looked down and said, “I’m sorry, I really can’t talk to you about any of that.”

This was odd in a few ways. One, being that I never gave this new stranger a chance at being different from the view I hold over many Europeans – that soccer is their life. Second, when the subject was brought up, a rather morose mood fell over me and I immediately knew this usually motivational topic gave the stranger motivation not to talk to me. I needed to know more.

I probed, looking for something to get back into the topic, I even started kicking a volleyball around the yard with his young son. Eventually, he came up to me later and apologized for not being able to talk about it, knowing certainly well that the sport is a topic of deep interest for me.

When Jan (not his real name) came to apologize, he told me why soccer is something he scorned and has avoided since he migrated to the States. In Germany, and I’m sure like most soccer-haven countries, a child’s social status is based on how he/she performs on the pitch during school’s daily recess.

“I was born with two left feet,” Jan said. “I was always picked last. Me and the fat kids.”

When Jan was an adolescent, he moved to a different town in hopes that the game wouldn’t continue to haunt him, hoping to find friends who liked him for who he was. Still, the recess nightmare continued. Jan was again on the bottom of the social chain looking up.

“When I moved to a different town I thought things would be different,” he recalled. “But everyday at recess the same happened, I was the last one picked, always the one people got stuck with.”

Jan ended up moving to the United States years ago and chose to forget the game. It’s obvious mental effect enveloped him and took over his self-esteem. Jan can still recall the teams and how Berlin didn’t have a good team when he was growing up, and besides the newly-promoted Hertha Berlin, much is the same.

Before leaving I thanked Jan for talking to me, introducing me to his family and recalling the painful memories of past days he would rather forget. Despite all the goals, the smiles and the amazing characters that the sport boasts, there is another side – a dark cloud that can show up on a childhood playground or an afternoon in the middle of the summer. For an innocent game, it means so much to so many, the pressure it can manufacture, like in Jan’s case, can start so young.

Ryan Fleming can be reached at

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