It was a humid Middle-Eastern evening as I sat on the porch looking down at my socks. I was wearing mid-shin socks over compression socks to reduce muscle vibration. Only problem was that my toes didn’t have as much grip as I want but I wasn’t refereeing so eh. Also, the color contrast looks pretty cool too. I was wearing compression shorts as well under my Adidas refereeing shorts. The only thing left to do with old edition uniforms are to use them for training.
I hadn’t run in a while so I was raring to go.
I’m pretty indifferent when it comes to listening to music while running. While it gives me a beat to tune to, I prefer visualising what I’m running for. Picturing a massive crowd in the stands and games at the highest level are the biggest motivations to keep going and appreciating what every step is for. Listening to my heart beat helps me understand how my body is responding to the demands of the game and my stamina level.
I was new to the area so I decided to keep the route relatively simple. Circuits are perfect runs because they are easy to set goals for and iterate on. The roads and sidewalks were empty. There isn’t many people this far out in the desert but there probably would be in a few years. I usually start my runs at a brisk pace and run out of gas in the first five minutes since I feel very energetic from the get-go. I paced myself better this time though.
The GPS delayed in connecting but I wasn’t willing to hold up my run just for the stats. I was definitely annoyed since I love looking at the stats after. Eh. I ran to the nearest mall as a checkpoint and strolled around for a minute or two exploring the area. I picked up the trail again using the sidewalk on the opposite side of the road back on the reverse route and decided to change it up by running a little further to the basketball court and mini turf pitch to see if there was anything going on.
The caged turf field had plenty of participants. It appeared to be a 6v6 game with players waiting on the side and a family sitting on the bench outside dressed casually watching the game. I slowed my pace to cool down as I turned to enter the cage and watch the game for a bit.
I was clearly dressed as a football fan because I was wearing a UEFA Champions League t-shirt and Adidas gear unmistakably more inclined to football than basketball. The ages of players involved was quite skewed – there were kids as young as 10 years old and an adult who must have been in his late 30s. I asked the substitute kids sitting on the floor beside the touchline about how often they played. Everyday at 6pm until 9pm.
It didn’t take very long before I was invited to play.
“Do you wanna play?”
“Sure, although I can’t stay long”
“No problem, yallah”
I took off my Garmin watch, foot pod, G-shock and phone and kept it at the corner of the field on the turf beside all the substitutes.
There were guests coming home for dinner and I knew my mom would kill me if I was late since I had originally only planned 30 minutes for the run and it’s easy to lose track of time during pick-up footy. Teams were re-organised to stay balanced. First to three goals win. Loser gets subbed off. The rules were clear. This wasn’t the traditional street football that I was used to playing but a bit better organised because of the facilities available.
Other than the guy in his late 30s, there were no dedicated goalkeepers. One of my teammates went into the net. He explained we’d rotate after every goal. I nodded in approval.
“What position do you play?”
I bit my tongue and held back the joke of responding saying “the ref”.
“Anything is good with me”
“Play up front on the left”
I struggled to keep track of my teammates as everyone was varying ages and uniform colors.
The opposing goalkeeper made a save and stood up after recovering to put the ball into play. I found myself automatically backpedalling to keep him in view. I couldn’t help but mentally chuckle that my referee tendencies were with me even when playing. I scanned around the field to look at his options. They were terrible. As players moved or looked towards space, I moved into one that would let me intercept it, keeping mind that he could quite easily throw the ball all the way across the field by lofting the ball if needed.
I relished the hard tackles and challenges for the ball since I don’t often get the opportunity to challenge using my strength (albeit relatively minimal).
We scored the first goal. I saw that my teammate, the goalkeeper, was getting bored defending the net and nobody was rotating so I offered to swap. He gladly obliged. I was hoping I wouldn’t get put there for the rest of the game.
The most skilled player of the game was clearly on the other side. We had one on our team too though wearing a Bayern Munich jersey (purple-blue strip). As I stood in net, I saw him ready to take on three defenders in front of me. He dribbled through all of them but the last forced him to play a heavy touch as he moved past him.
Everything happened very quickly then. The ball was rolling straight towards me in goal and if I didn’t challenge for it by taking a few steps forward, he’d have an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. At the same time, I knew what was going through his mind.
“All this work and I’m going to lose the ball”
I took two steps forward and toe-poked the ball to the side and then braced for impact.
He stepped on my foot. I took it and absorbed the pain with a quick wince before looking towards where the ball had gone and play was continuing.
He immediately realized what he had done and apologized. I shrugged it off since I was enjoying playing something with physicality for a change. I knew that I was used to seeing a different reaction in the Latin American games I was used to officiating which often resulted in a yelp of pain and a heap on the floor followed by a simple caution to send a message about the tackle. All that to avoid mass confrontation.
We scored again.
One of the younger players received the ball from a long goalkeeper throw standing in an offside position.
Law #11: There are no offsides in street football.
He dribbled it towards me and blasted it into the net to my right on the near post giving me no chance to react. I hadn’t gauged the distance I was away from the near post well enough. I kicked the ball out of the back of the net in frustration and we restarted.
One of the opposing team’s players declared:
“Huh ? It’s 2-1”
I didn’t bother arguing. I brought it up lightly and knew this is how games in street football lose control. After all, all we wanted to do was play. No ref to enforce fairness out here. There was a brief squabble before we kicked off again and 5–10 minutes later, we scored again to close the game. The move had started with me releasing the ball from goal and five passes to reach the back of the other net. I rushed to gather my stuff, wave goodbye and then start a brisk run back home.
Phew… no cars in the driveway.