A boy and his ball?

2009-10-22 00:00

DURING the recent school holidays on a lion-coloured hill above a small town, I witnessed an event that has changed me.

Although this piece reads like a “True Stories of KZN” entry, it happened in the Free State and it could probably be a story from any province­ in the country.

Although I played several sports at school and action cricket as a young adult, I’m not a sports fan. I fall into the category of people who don’t even make it onto the scale of sports fans. We’re the ones who ask “Rugby, what rugby?”, when others are wearing their Springbok shirts and stocking up on beer and biltong to watch the big game.

I confess to being somewhat bemused­ by the hype around the 2010 Soccer World Cup, but I have gone along with it anyway for the sake of my children and my job.

Speaking of my children, despite our best efforts to be gender-sensitive parents and offer them the same opportunities, they are stereotypically­ male and female. Joshua’s* energy would overload and trip the national power grid if we plugged him in and he’s never happier than when playing with a ball. Hannah* loves to read and draw, and has an innate sense of style. Translated, this means all that Joshua took on holiday was his soccer ball and he didn’t care what clothes I packed for him, while Hannah packed her own clothes and took along a bag full of books and art supplies.

That soccer ball went everywhere we went: strolling along the shady streets of Clarens, exploring the art galleries and knick-knack shops where those polite signs are no less threatening for being genteelly­ worded: “If you break it, you pay for it,” and walking near Golden Gate. We drew the line at taking it on a hike up the small mountain that rises near the town like an aloof bystander, mute witness­ to the life of the people below­. But it went on a walk through the undulating waves of winter grass and over the sun-warmed sandstone outcrops to the dam.

There we found a group of boys from the nearby township leaping and diving in the water like beans boiling in a pot. When we returned from exploring the dry river bed they were dressed and on their way home. Suddenly and inexplicably they all clustered around Josh, mysteriously drawn by something, like iron filings to a magnet. The boy with the ball became the man of the moment.

There on the dusty slope among the cow pats one of the highlight of Josh’s holiday ensued: a six-a-side soccer match. We don’t speak Sotho and few of the boys spoke English, but that didn’t hamper the players’ enjoyment. The game was more enthusiastic than it was proficient, and the ball had to be retrieved many times when it tried to escape down the hill. Fortunately, the livestock fence caught it.

It was long past dusk when the match eventually ended. The late winter chill was claiming back the town from the impertinently early summer when the boys’ last farewells finally faded over the hill. Josh was triumphant — his team had won 6-1. He bore all the signs of a boy who’d been engaged in the important life work of children: playing and having fun. He was filthy, hungry, thirsty and exhausted, but elated. A rematch was set for the lawn in the town square the next day.

The rematch did indeed take place, but with much reduced teams as the poor weather kept several players away. Josh also got to play a third match along one of the town’s sandy roads while we enjoyed sundowners at the local brewery.

So, you may be asking, is there a point to this somewhat self-indulgent and sentimental story? Well, there are two points, actually. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: “It’s about the memories and the sport, Stupid­.” First, the memories.

It has been said that one of the important tasks of parenting is creating­ opportunities for our children­ to make good childhood memories. While we sat all gooey-eyed and emotional, watching our boy joyously scuffling in the dust over a sphere of inflated leather, Nic* commented that this would probably be one of the experiences that Josh would remember all his life.

What if we’d not allowed it to happen? What if we’d responded like parents so often do and focused on being responsible grown-ups who all too often say no? We’d have edited out that moment of serendipitous­ bliss and, dare I say it, sacred grace. I have returned from holiday determined to try to be less of a responsible grown-up and enjoy playing with my children more. As the saying says: “We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing.”

And what of the sport? For the first time perhaps, I get it. I get what Danny Jordaan, Ali Bacher­ and others are saying when they rabbit on about “the power of sport”. I get the profound reason why the 2010 Soccer World Cup is important. I have diligently attended the children’s sports events and read all the newsletters from Josh’s school about the character-building benefits of team sport and thought: “Yes, no well fine…”

Watching my son enjoying that soccer game, despite being barely able to communicate with the other­ players, I had a revelation. I realised how sport really can draw people together and unite them. It’s an international language­ like music or dance. For the first time I think I understand the importance of learning to speak sport.

So what am I going to do now that I’m a born-again sports fan? For a start, I’m going to get genuinely excited about 2010 and support the team effort towards this. For example­, I’m going to learn the rules of soccer. Hopefully, I can persuade the sports department to write a piece called “Soccer for dummies”, and then I will take the children to see the Moses Mabhida Stadium. I’m not going to nag Josh to wash the black Clarens mud off his soccer ball as it’s a reminder of the holiday.

The next time he asks me to play soccer with him or Hannah­ asks me to watch her on the trampoline when I’m about to prepare supper, I’m going to say yes. If they have to eat cereal and fruit for supper, I reckon that’s a small price to pay for a chance to make some more good memories … for the children and me. * I have my family’s permission to publish this story.

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