In most of the world they call it football — which is quite reasonable, since there is so much emphasis on the participants’ feet. If you want to actually touch the ball with your hand you have to wear a gaudy long-sleeved jersey that’s nothing like the ones your teammates sport. Here in the American South only football is called football. To us, what the elite women athletes of the world are playing this month is soccer — albeit soccer on a big stage.
Having been confined to my home for much of the summer, I have attempted to get interested in the Women’s World Cup championships. Honesty compels me to admit that I am fighting a losing battle.
I do have a history with women’s football, understand. Remember the 1996 Olympics? I brought my son, Jackson, to Athens to watch the semifinal matches between where the hedges had been. He was excited about seeing Mia Hamm. I was just hoping Brandi Chastain would score the winning goal. You never knew how that precious child might celebrate.
Security was a big issue in 1996 — and so was parking. Back in those days, at every Georgia football game, I parked along the curb on Carlton Street. I assured Jackson that we would do the same thing that day, but as soon as we turned right off Baxter we were stopped at a roadblock — manned by the biggest Georgia State Patrolman I had ever seen.
He approached our car, wearing a friendly smile, and informed us that the area was closed to traffic.
Nonplused, I told him, “But sir, that’s my parking space,” pointing to a distant section of the Carlton Street curb.
“Your parking space?” he responded incredulously.
“Yes, sir,” I told him, adding, “I’ve parked right there for every football game for the past 16 years.
His face lit up with an even bigger grin and said, “But this ain’t football. This is the Olympics.”
And that’s when I showed him my oversized yellow ticket with the Atlanta Olympic logo, the one that read “Women’s Football,” next to the event line. “Say’s football on the ticket,” I assured him.
Taking a long look at my ticket, the trooper nodded his head in agreement. “Sure does,” he agreed, and moved the barricade aside and motioned us through. We parked for the women’s football game in the same place I had parked since the days of Herschel Walker and Kevin Butler.
And we had a wonderful time. Mia Hamm was incredible, Brandi Chastain behaved and a tall, sandy-haired player named Michelle Akers was the star of the show. That wasn’t my first soccer game.
The first soccer game I ever saw — I coached. It was 1982 at Clarkston High School. In a former life I was a high school girls basketball coach. DeKalb County was a hotbed for youth soccer, but Clarkston had no girls team and the parents were on Principal Dewey Holbrook’s head to add one. He approached me in the hall one day and said, “Huckaby, we’ve got to start a girls soccer team and since you already coach girls basketball, you need to coach it.”
I said, “Mr. Holbrook, I’ve never even seen a soccer game.” I was telling the truth, too.
He said, “The season is six weeks long and it pays $2,000.”
“Hired!” I said.
I borrowed a book and set out to become an expert, while the team-to-be started working out with the boys until basketball was done. As luck would have it, my basketball team was eliminated from the state tournament on the Friday before the first scheduled soccer game on Saturday.
I showed up at DeKalb Memorial Stadium ready to go. Book in hand, I gathered my team together and set up our strategy — to a chorus of complaints. I silenced them all with an upheld hand. “I’m the coach,” I reminded them. “Do what I say.”
With a shrug of their collective shoulders, my team took to the pitch. Our opponent was Stone Mountain, reigning county champions, and at half-time we were ahead 1-0. The only disquieting moment had come when an official had walked over and held a yellow card in my face for yelling at him.
Our boys soccer coach came to my sideline during the half and informed me that we were playing with too many girls. “No we’re not,” I assured him. “We have four up front, three midfielders and four in back.”
“Plus the goalie,” he reminded me.
“The goalie counts?” I exclaimed. “She doesn’t even have the same shirt on.”
We played the second half with 11 — and won. I went on to coach soccer for 12 more years. It’ll never catch on in the South, though, because the announcers say stuff like, “The U.S. needs to equalize here,” when he means we need to tie the game up.
But I still watched the U.S. lose to Sweden 2-1. Everybody kept their shirts on and I had a great parking spot — right on my couch. But never fear. Real football is only eight weeks away.
Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. Email him at email@example.com. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/darrellhuckaby.