In 1984, I taught English as a Second Language at a Gulf Coast university. I joined a program funded by a global oil giant to teach 40 Saudi …
In 1984, I taught English as a Second Language at a Gulf Coast university. I joined a program funded by a global oil giant to teach 40 Saudi Arabians the universal tongue of petrochemical refineries. Technical English prepared the Saudis to work in the desert kingdom’s vast new facilities at Al Jubail, the sprawling industrial city on the Persian Gulf.
When not learning industrial English, the Saudis liked to play soccer. After pickup matches among themselves, they approached the faculty to request forming a team to play a few games against local squads.
Someone had heard that I’d once been backup goalie for a campus soccer club in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This, of course, qualified me to be their coach. It did not, however, qualify me to be a good one.
A dozen players showed up for our first practice — a whole soccer team, with one reserve.
We practiced a couple of leisurely afternoons a week. The players kicked the ball a few times. Everybody went home happy. Especially me, daydreaming of the first soccer dynasty in the Deep South.
Somehow, word reached Keesler Air Force Base, an hour away in Mississippi, that our university had this Saudi team in training. A secret soccer strike force. A Jubail juggernaut. A story even spread that one of our strikers had starred on the Saudi national team. (True? False? Who knew?)
Naturally, a challenge went out.
Fellers, I told the team, we’re going to Biloxi!
The fellers got excited. Maybe too much so.
Something happened the night before the match. Certain members of the team, far from the minarets of home and the strictures of canonical law … overindulged, to say it gently.
At 7 a.m., several of our players showed up at our meeting place staggering and woozy and asleep on their feet. I drove them to Mississippi anyway, believing an hour of motion might prove a miracle cure. I couldn’t have made a worse decision. One player needed my Styrofoam coffee cup for a sick bag.
In Biloxi, the team stepped onto a freshly chalked, dew-bejeweled field. The soccer balls looked spanking new. We watched the Keesler boys thunder through their warm-ups in fine new uniforms and the latest flashy Nikes. Our team looked self-consciously at our blue thrift-store T-shirts with ironed-on letters.
A whistle blew to start the game.
Imagine baby rabbits in the path of a steamroller.
The airmen attacked. When they went for the ball, my guys went upside down. Their kicks knocked our players back like cannonballs.
Keesler scored a goal in the first 30 seconds of the match. Two minutes later, they netted a second. Ibrahim, our striker, sent a corner kick just wide of the Keesler goal with a nice header, but then he couldn’t remember where he was for a few minutes.
Humiliation can be expressed in many ways.
This day, two of my players expressed theirs by sitting down at midfield. Another player loudly threw up, something purple with yellow clots. The worst, though, came after a sixth or seventh first-half Keesler goal. The skinniest, wiriest player on our team slipped behind the Keesler defense to urinate on the Airmen’s goal, an obvious foul.
As he drained in full view of both teams and a mixed audience of astonished spectators, the midfielder lifted one leg, then the other. He looked as if he were being slowly electrocuted. It took him a long time.
In unison, the Keesler airmen turned to me, Coach C, their eyes flinty, unforgiving.
Suddenly, our team hustled for the first time that day. Our rescue van waited in the parking lot. Everything in a blue T-shirt moved that direction in a blur.
I broke Mississippi laws leaving town. I got us on I-10 eastbound, gunning a getaway car filled with hung over or heartsick soccer players who had disgraced themselves with bad play and even worse behavior. As we burned toward home, the screaming, bat-waving Air Force boys in their thundering Mad Max muscle cars grew ever larger in the rearview.
Freedom is losing a game but winning a desperate race to the Alabama-Mississippi state line.
Charles McNair’s most recent novel is “The Epicureans.” He lives in Colombia.