When being asked the question “Where are your cleats at?” in Italian, it sounds like this: “Dove la sua scarpini?” What? Now imagine that being yelled at you by a boisterous, middle-aged Roman soccer coach who never fully explained if he had a real job, only mentioning that he had “meetings” to attend. Now take that image and amp it up. He was 5 feet 6 inches tall, had gelled brown hair with a part down the middle and a voice that could rival Morgan Freeman’s. He was simply terrifying. Now take it up another notch. This is the first time you have played any type of soccer in seven months and a voice muffled by a cigarette and strong Roman dialect tells you to go play soccer against Italian college-level players. Uhhh, “Si, singori,” I guess.
As I jogged with the John Cabot University Gladiator soccer team, which was the team for the school I was studying abroad at, I just kept saying the catch phrase over and over in my head, “Fake it ‘till you make it.” I had no business being on this field and really only came out to the practice because I was told that it was just a little pickup game where Italians play againstsome naïve, eager little American kids. I was in. But no more than ten minutes into practice the coach came up and asked that dreadful question, “Dove la sua scarpini?” I had no answer because I had no idea what he said.
One month later, our first game had arrived and it was a home game at a little soccer haven literally dropped in the middle of a neighborhood. At this point I had come to terms with the fact that I was actually on an Italian soccer squad and was keeping up with them. It was a totally different game than I had played in the states. Every mistake meant about five or six of your teammates yelling at you. The stands, filled with ridiculously drunk students laughing at you and the coach, whom you are deathly afraid of, throwing down his game-time cigarette and outlandishly screaming at you. To say the least, the games were intense.
As we changed before the first game, I realized I had not felt these types of nerves since my last competitive athletic event in high school. It was the same feeling you get before a big test or big presentation, the little ball of hornets tearing up your stomach as you sit getting ready for a game against a group of Italians that have breathed the game of soccer since they were two years old. Yeah, I was nervous.
After two 30-minute halves and an inordinate amount of flopping, we beat the other squad. That all-too-familiar feeling of winning came back to me. The celebration was something I wasn’t ready for. After the whistle had blown, the team danced and sang its way up to the locker room where Italian national songs were belted out like a group of untrained teenage Pavarottis. I had played the whole game and had an assist. They were not asking me about my scarpini or my name anymore— they were asking where we were going to celebrate.
I had won a few big games before and received pointless gaudy trophies, but never in my life had I felt as accomplished as I did that night. After we danced, sang and drank our way through the worn cobblestone streets of Rome, I became an Italian soccer player. We finished our debauchery and settled into a 24-hour sandwich shop before heading home. It was 4 a.m. I had been the only American to stay with the Italians all night. As we started to say goodnight I was embraced as an Italian and we, men and soccer players, gave each other the universal “handshake hug” and two kisses, one on each cheek. Before that night, I would have never thought a kiss from a dude would feel so good, but it did. I had become a teammate.
As the season went on and my semester abroad got closer to an end, I began to see the significance of this experience. Being able to take my love of sports and athletics to create relationships in another country was amazing to me. I had always appreciated being an athlete, and when it was over after high school I was fine with it. But having that last competitive season as an athlete is something I hold on to.
But who knows, maybe now I’ll do it again and just hit up a rugby team in New Zealand… yeah, right.