The Beautiful Game

Coming at UI from Everywhere

By Ron McFarland

Photos courtesy of Ron McFarland

One summer morning in the mid-1970s, I got a call from my University of Idaho colleague, the late Teo Sipahigil. Teo hailed from Turkey, and he came to the U.S. as an undergraduate on a full ride to play soccer at Earlham in Indiana, where he was a standout forward.

He’d taken his doctorate at UCLA, where he played soccer on what was then, in the late 1960s, an exceptional club team, and he was also our Shakespeare prof. He called to ask me to play at a tournament in Lewiston, about thirty-five miles south. I pointed out that I’d never touched a soccer ball and knew virtually zip about the game, but he argued the UI club was down a man and needed “someone,” by which I understood he meant “anyone.”

Teo: “Look. We’ll put you at fullback on the outside, that’s defense. Whatever you do, don’t touch the ball with your hands, and if it comes your way, kick it into touch, which means out of bounds.”

Me: “You’re kidding. That’s it?”

Teo: “Believe me, there’s a lot more. But we just need you to get in the way of whoever comes toward you with the ball. Get your foot in the way of the ball. Kick it out of bounds. Don’t trip anyone in the process.”

So I did as ordered, and loved the game right off. Later I learned the fine points of off-sides and the off-sides trap, but never mastered the skills most of the guys on the team had polished by the time they were nine or ten years old. Learning how to pass the ball backward in rugby, the game I played in grad school, and how to make a decent tackle without braining myself (sometimes), and how to let loose of the ball when tackled (you learn that pretty quickly), seemed much easier than learning the mysteries of the feet. How different it is to execute a worthy tackle in soccer from doing the same in rugby or American football. I guess I got reasonably proficient at tackling, occasionally attempting a slide tackle, like that time in the goal mouth on a frozen pitch in Missoula, Montana, which culminated in a broken left hand, or that afternoon in Pullman, Washington (fractured left ankle). And I managed to learn how to trap the ball fairly well (sometimes) and to make decent passes (pretty often). But I never mastered the art of dribbling with my clumsy feet—best always to “get it off your foot!” It’s hard at age thirty-something to segue from dribbling a basketball to dribbling a soccer ball, not that I ever mastered the former skill.

But this writing pertains less to skill sets than to aspects of the game itself as I participated in it for about twenty-three years with the UI men’s soccer club. Or perhaps it concerns what might be called the “cultures” of the club.

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Ron McFarland

About Ron McFarland

Ron McFarland is professor emeritus at the University of Idaho, where he started teaching literature and creative writing in 1970. Pecan Grove Press published his fourth full-length book of poems, Subtle Thieves, in 2012. His critical books include Appropriating Hemingway (2015) and Edward J. Steptoe and the Indian Wars (2016).

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