Back in the mists of ancient history (July last year, to be precise), I wrote a column drawing on my experience of watching my kids play soccer in Beijing, to explain why China performs so poorly at the sport.
Curiously, the letter from the Chinese Football Association thanking me for my valuable insights never arrived. It must have got lost in the post. I’m sure though I can take some credit for the national team’s soaring up the world rankings since then, from 81st to a lofty 66th, snapping at the heels of Jamaica and Panama. Meanwhile England have slumped to 15th; clearly I need to get over there and give them the benefit of my wisdom.
My real point though was to criticize western parents who take their kids’ sports way too seriously. However a year down the line, I have become that soccer dad yelling from the touchline. Beijing has made a hypocrite of me, just like the time I found myself cycling down the wrong side of the road on a bike with no lights.
It all began when we moved to Shunyi. For all my grumbles about life in the ‘burbs, the sporting options here are much wider than downtown. And so my boys ended up trying out for a team which actually competes in a league.
We were pleased when they were both selected – though my cynical side wondered whether anybody would be turned down, given the hefty sums which are charged for coaching. And we didn’t fully appreciate the huge commitment we were taking on, with training twice a week and matches on Sunday.
However it’s turned out to be worth every jiao. As the boys have gone through a second move in two years, once again leaving behind friends and familiar comforts, belonging to a team has brought them new friendships, fun and self-confidence. Me though – it’s turned me into a nervous wreck.
A quirk of scheduling means that it’s the younger one’s team whose matches I attend (they play at the same time in different locations), and I have become a rabid fan, shouting myself hoarse and celebrating goals with a range of embarrassing fist pumps and gorilla roars. Professional football has dwindled in importance, as though I’m looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. The travails of my hometown club, Birmingham City, seem a very long way away. As indeed they are.
In part it’s a natural parental desire to see my children succeed and be happy. Joseph is an intense young man, and takes his and his team’s performances very seriously. Life was much easier when they were on a five-game winning streak, than when they finally met their match at the hands of a team of ruthlessly efficient German kids. (International football stereotypes transfer freely to the children’s game, I have discovered.) To our surprise though, he accepted their first defeat with a new maturity, another benefit of being in the team.
I can’t deny too that there’s an element of just what I criticized other parents for: vicariously living out their sporting fantasies through their kids. I was never any good at football, or for that matter any sport involving physical coordination. I was always bookish and nerdy and only ever represented my school at chess and long-distance running, where my ability to plod relentlessly for mile after mile rendered me less than entirely useless. When I see Joseph’s teammates high-fiving him for pulling off a spectacular save, I feel a surge of pride which my own meager sporting achievements never gave me.
Mostly though, I just like the team. I like the kids, who are competitive without being aggressive, I like the coaches, I like the atmosphere at matches. I try not to be graceless, to encourage respect for the officials’ decisions, to cheer the other players, even the opposition. I’m trying to rein in the urge to coach from the touchline, though this is a work in progress. The truth is, I also found the move to Shunyi unsettling, and I get from the experience what supporting a team can give, as well as playing in one: a sense of belonging.
This article appeared on p44 beijingkids’ November 2017 issue.
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