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A Soccer Story
Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
In the Foreword to Full-Time: A Soccer Story , Vancouver writer Alan Twigg explains the rationale of this book by describing the moment when he realized he wanted to write it. He was standing at the centre of a centuries-old Mayan ball court in the ruins of Lubaantum in southern Belize. Having written a book on the history of Belize, he knew that soccer's origins might be traced back to a similar game played by Mayans long before Europeans crossed the Atlantic.
"As I stood there, itching to run for a ball," he writes, "it first dawned on me that I should try to write a book about how soccer connects us."
Twigg is not a sports journalist, nor was he ever a professional soccer player. He did, however, have enough talent in his youth growing up in West Vancouver that a coach suggested to his parents that he go to school in Germany where he might eventually become a pro. But this was an absurd idea in the 1960s and his parents laughed it off. Twigg gave up soccer for writing in his early adult life and built a solid career with more than a dozen books on topics including Canadian writers, BC history, Cuba and Belize. Since 1987, he has been the Publisher of BC Bookworld , a well-respected quarterly newspaper about books and authors.
So where did soccer come back into the picture? As Twigg puts it, "Around the midway point of my life, on some reptilian brain level, I realized I must make a choice: chase women or chase the ball." He joined an over-30 team and found his obsession with the sport still burning inside him.
By the time of his visit to the Mayan ball court in 2006, he was the player-manager of the Point Grey Legends, an over-50 team that was gearing up for a trip to Spain where they would play against a team of ex-professionals--players who had made names for themselves on teams such as Real Madrid and Barcelona. None of the Legends had ever played professionally. Their average age was 57, with several players over 60 and one who was 70. Two team members were undergoing chemotherapy, one for leukemia, the other for hepatitis, and Twigg himself had undergone brain surgery to remove a tumor in 2001 (he wrote a memoir about that experience called Intensive Care for Anvil Press in 2002). Clearly, they were all obsessed, and Twigg knew it.
"At Lubaantum, as I stood at midfield and it finally began to rain, I knew my animal desire to kick a ball and chase it was deeply embedded, and no amount of rationalizing was going to change that. When I'm ninety years old, I'll still have an eye for a pretty girl, and if an errant ball rolls my way, I'll still have the urge to kick it."
So Twigg decided to write a chronicle of the Legends' trip to Spain, starting a year before and culminating with the games in Granada themselves. The result is a compelling exploration of what it takes to play a sport competitively well into middle age: the toll of injuries and how much more difficult it is to recover from them; the foreboding sense of mortality as players are forced to cope with life-threatening illnesses; negotiating with family members and balancing career responsibilities; and the self-doubt that gnaws at one's psyche with each passing birthday.
Sometimes funny, sometimes embarrassingly honest, always entertaining and readable, this book is reminiscent of Dave Bidini's Baseballissimo (also McClelland & Stewart, 2004), in which the ex-rock star describes the season he played with a semi-pro baseball team in Italy, another unlikely idea that resulted in an interesting, incisive book. Both Baseballissimo and Full-Time succeed because they look at where sport and life intersect for regular, everyday folks, not superstar millionaire athletes.
Woven into the Legends' story is the historical development of the sport abroad, in Canada and particularly in Vancouver, as well as profiles of some of Twigg's teammates, each offering a different perspective on the game and why they are still playing it well past most athletes' best-before date.
But more important is Twigg's self-analysis, which he undertakes through a series of five interviews with an imaginary mistress, Nettie Honeyball, named after a real-life suffragette who founded the British Ladies Football Club in 1894. These sequences are some of the funniest in the book, but they also reveal much about the author's obsession and his need to understand it.
Twigg is a fine writer who knows how to structure a story and draw his readers along, building up tension and excitement as the final pages near. His descriptions of game action are positively riveting. It's a shame he never had success as a novelist, which was his first writing dream, but perhaps he will try his hand at it again now that he is done with his soccer obsession.
Is he finished with soccer? Perhaps. The title of the book's final chapter, "Outgrowing Soccer," certainly implies it. Having followed his obsession all the way to Spain even though his daughter was due to have her first baby at the same time, he finds out that he has become a grandfather during his final game. The closing line of the book sums up his epiphany perfectly: "If Indigo Taylor Twigg never wants to kick a soccer ball, that will be okay with me."
Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who plays basketball, softball, squash and tennis--just not soccer.
Copyright © Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.