Winter Game by Aleksandar Hemon
For Aleksandar Hemon, football is more than a sport. He traces his own and the world's love affair with the game. In this essay from his collection The Matters of Life, Death and More: Writing on Football, he and his friends play the beautiful game on an ice cold Chicago morning. They are from all over – Western Bosnia, Cameroon, England, Ecuador – and, though they know little of each other's pasts, they are all brought together by their love of playing football.
I bike in the snow gullies on a Chicago street, on my way to a pickup football game. The field on Chicago’s North Side where my friends and I play is made of ground-up tires adorned with some plastic grass on top, so it doesn’t completely freeze in the winter. On this particular Saturday, however, the pitch is coated in ice (a sudden Arctic freeze arrived on the heels of a warm-up earlier that week) under just enough snow to conceal the slippery surface. I’d blown both of my knees playing football, so the wise course of action would be to bike back home. But as I approach the field, I can see a yellow-and-blue ball rolling on the whiteness, a sight before which wisdom capitulates.
I can also see Johnny (an enormous Montenegrin Albanian whose real name is Aslan) and Georgie (Jorge, Ecuador-born, who has promised me that his life story is novel-worthy but has never told me any of it), picking the teams, haggling over various players. I dismount my bike, lean it against the fence, and join the kick-about. I kick the yellow-and-blue ball to Duncan, an Englishman, who’s grumpy already: the teams are picked too slowly, it’s too cold, and he has to go soon—his work is snow removal, so he’s got plenty of it lined up. Duncan kicks the ball over to Enes, who used to play professionally in Europe. He came to Chicago as a refugee from Western Bosnia. During the war, Western Bosnia was controlled by forces collaborating with the Serbs and fiercely opposed to the government in Sarajevo, for which the government troops eventually exacted a terrible revenge. Consequently, Western Bosnians in Chicago and the United States refuse all contact with Bosnians proper and have their own communities, festivals, football teams, and shops. I do not know how bad Enes’s war experience might’ve been or where his loyalties might lie, but we get along splendidly: He’s a great player and a kind man. Enes skillfully rolls the ball to Carl, an Arsenal supporter who has lived in Chicago for a very long time, Carl over to David, whose father-in-law is the coach of the Serbian U-21 national football team and had before that coached the national team of Ghana. Winner, a fit competitive dreadlocked motormouth in his twenties, who has come with a bad cold hoping to “run it off,” receives the ball from David and makes an unnecessarily fancy move before he kicks it on to Charlie, who has played with Johnny/Aslan for at least twenty-five years and who remembers hundreds of the players the two have shared a field with. Charlie is always ready to dispense a good story about any of them, and I’m always ready to listen. He kicks the ball over to me.
the score matters less than the moment when
everything comes together for us
In the cold, the ball is hard as a rock. We kick it around not to warm up—the ball against the foot triggers something in our brains, propels us to a game-ready trance. Jean-Paul, a Cameroonian, arrives dressed against the winter, complete with his sweatpants tucked deeply into thick socks; it’s hard to understand how he can move at all. It’s already well past 8:00 a.m., the time we’re supposed to start—there are thirteen of us, enough for a game.
Johnny and George have finally picked the teams, and we’re on. The conditions are treacherous; playing is not unlike playing on ice skates. I slip at the goal line, barely escaping a blown knee; I fall on my back, narrowly avoiding a concussion, though my neck whiplashes—it’ll be sore and stiff for a week after the game. We forgo sliding tackles and rough plays and warn one another of particularly perilous spots, but the game is contentious, rife with yelling and taunting. My team quickly makes some good passes and goes three goals up. But the score matters less than the moment when everything comes together for us: Duncan sends the ball back to me in midfield, I pass it to Winner on the right side, he quickly sends it to Carl, who scores, tapping it in—we’re four goals up. It’s all simple and perfect. For an inexpressible moment, we sense the evanescent possibility of a harmonious world.
But then an ambulance’s wailing siren speeds down Ridge, the major thoroughfare next to the field, as if to remind us that our limbs and joints are at risk. Inside a fenced-off basketball court a dog is running in circles while its owner is visibly shivering. It’s winter in Chicago, early Saturday morning; no one else is around. There is a monastic, spiritual quality to our playing in flesh-eating cold, whereby the intense in-the-body experience leads to epiphany. Each time a good pass is completed, against the icy odds, Winner laughs. Each time Enes scores, he giggles. We’re risking our limbs and livelihood because something good is happening.
The final score is 4–3, Enes providing all of the other team’s goals. We walk off the field, appreciating the fact that, miraculously, all of our joints are in place. Duncan sits down to perform his after-game ritual: a cigarette and a beer. Others file to their cars. I get on my frozen bike and go home. We’ll all be back next Saturday.
In these pages, Hemon revisits memories of his first World Cup (1974), for which his homeland, Yugoslavia, qualified in dramatic fashion. He takes us through the World Cups of the eighties, nineties, up through South Africa in 2010-and to the brink of the 2014 World Cup, which is a special one for Hemon: the first time that Bosnia and Herzegovina has qualified in the country's history. Football is a high-stakes enterprise full of extreme passion, extreme talent, extreme money, and often extreme politics. But here too are stories of the heated games of Hemon's youth in Sarajevo's gravel courtyards, of the frozen pick-up games of his adulthood in Chicago, and now, of his daughter's slightly less intense soccer practices, replete with cones and shin guards.
For Hemon football is more than a sport, it's certainly not 'exercise,' it is the beautiful game-and never more so than in these pages.