A few years ago when I studied in France a couple of friends and I decided to visit Switzerland for a weekend and have a look at their Alps. After spending Saturday night experiencing all that Geneva nightlife has to offer (we each drank two beers and were in bed by 10 PM), on Sunday morning we found ourselves hanging out on a bench in a quiet park near Lac Léman. As I sat there a handful of Swiss guys came along—they all showed up in the space of 10 minutes, so they must have planned this in advance—and began to organize a pickup soccer game. First they jogged a few laps and stretched before putting on cleats, then they divided themselves into equal teams based on shirt color, and finally they selected one of their number to act as a referee. I watched in fascination, because this was literally the most interesting thing I had seen since getting to Switzerland, as the referee selected two MORE players to serve as linesmen, who carefully paced out a soccer pitch, marked it with cones, and finally the game could begin.
This wasn’t an impromptu practice session of the Swiss national team or anything. These were just a couple of bros kicking around on a Sunday morning, and their style of playing soccer and letting off a little steam involved three officials and a precisely delineated field. I’ve been playing a lot of pickup football lately here in Uganda, and I think about that morning in Switzerland a lot. Soccer may be a global language, but every country speaks its own dialect.
I first started playing when I was about seven years old, and I played on intramural and club teams for eight years after that. I love soccer. The only required piece of equipment is a ball, it’s played from Siberia to South Africa to Singapore, and little kids in the most rural villages here in Uganda know who Lionel Messi is and can’t wait until they’re old enough to sign for Manchester United. I’ve been travelling a lot over the last few years, and I haven’t yet been to a country where young guys my age don’t profoundly love football and play it at every opportunity. In Guatemala I watched games played on a sprawling dirt field between equally matched hordes of about 30 ten year olds vying for a deflated ball, in Senegal I played savage beach soccer against Senegalese, Nigerians, and Ivoirians who considered dribbling through the ocean and throwing elbows to the ribs within the scope of fair play, in Paris I juggled a ball in front of the Palais du Luxembourg, and now I play every day after work here in Hoima, Uganda.
It took me a little while to pick up on the rules around here, so I’ll pass them on to you now in case you ever find yourself in Hoima Town around 18h looking to play. My teammates here select a referee before every game, which is a pretty coveted position because you get to blow a whistle and you don’t get kicked in the shins quite as much. There is a team called Red and a team called Yellow, and the Red team wears orange pinneys and the Yellow team wears green ones. I’ve been assured that this makes sense. The games are taken seriously, and people wear cleats, play positions, and use pretty good footwork and passing to knife through the opposing team’s defense. There are also a lot of fouls, which is where the referee comes in. He responds to fouls in a variety of ways: he assigns yellow cards, red cards, for especially serious fouls “two red cards,” and most frequently of all “don’t care. You play!” Usually the ref is too busy texting or joking with friends to watch the game, so players have to bring fouls to his attention. “Mr. Referee, he kicked me in the stomach—” “don’t care. You play!” “Mr. Referee, he scored from offsides—” “don’t care. You play!” A player slides and whacks the referee in the shins—“Foul! Two red cards!”
I love it. I play every day, and yesterday I was scouted for a position on a real club team here—FC Hoima, I guess. I think mostly I was invited for novelty value, but I may look into it. I have a month left, and you gotta keep busy.