In Chicago midfields, Hemon discovers transcendental soccer nation

Granta 108As theological statements go, the title of Aleksandar Hemon‘s essay in the current Granta, “If God Existed, He’d Be a Solid Midfielder,” would not impress the plethora of seminarians in Hemon’s adopted home, Chicago. Its unapologetic agnosticism creates insurmountable doctrinal challenges. If God plays midfield, He creates. But can He save? Not without an intentional handball and automatic ejection, and who could send off God?

What seems like foolishness to theologians feels like life to Hemon and uncounted immigrant arrivals, before and since, who have used soccer’s communicative essence to help them adapt in new surroundings. “We—immigrants trying to stay afloat in this country—found comfort in playing by the rules we set ourselves,” writes Hemon of a fluctuating roster of pickup players, Tibetan and Togolese and almost everything in between, with whom he has bonded over the past 15 years. “It made us feel that we still were part of a world much bigger than the United States.”

As he built a writing life in a new language, Hemon also developed nuanced understanding of the immigrant experience. The life of such people “in between” would become a theme in his fiction, The Question of Bruno (2000), Nowhere Man (2002), The Lazarus Project (2008) and Love and Obstacles (2009).

One especially important encounter occurred in summer 1995. Overweight and saddled with a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, Hemon noticed footballers at a Chicago park. They let him play.

Since before Hemon’s accidental Midwestern sojourn began in 1992, the spiritual anchor of this group, an Ecuadoran named German, had facilitated ethnic blending through soccer. If God exists, it is within German as he launders the football kit of strangers, trundles across the city in a gear-laden “magic van” and penalizes himself for overexuberance in the challenge. German pictures himself in retirement as a Florida church-planter, marshaling the pitch next door after Sunday meeting. Unlike “God,” German’s name is pronounced with a soft “G.”

Aleksandar HemonHemon says in a Nov 12 interview, excerpted below, that “when I started playing with German … somebody showed me a photo album that had a lot of photos of all the people who played with German before I started playing. I realized it was possible to have a history in this country and in this city with other people who are also immigrants. It wasn’t that only natives had histories. It was also a history of people who came from elsewhere.”

English writer Zadie Smith in a 2001 portrait terms Hemon’s midfield presence representative of “the hardcore, Bosnian, Eastern-bloc, full-contact version of the game.” Hemon, called Sasha by friends, favors a comparison to Claude Makelele. He has described himself as a natural forward but over time has drifted back to the rear of midfield. He turned 45 this year.

Hemon does not use the word “obsession” to describe his connection to football. But he is clearly an engaged mystic, delighting in the vision of a park player from Tibet minding goal during a thunderstorm: “The ground is giving off vapour, the mist touching their ankles, and at moments it seems that they’re levitating a few inches above the ground, untouched by the flood.”

In the Nov 12 interview, conducted before the two-leg World Cup qualifying playoff between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Portugal, we discuss Hemon’s evolving regard for the team coached by Miroslav Blazevic. Before the 0–2 aggregate loss, Hemon sounds edgy about the fever gripping fans back home. For his friends abroad, he says, “Everything depends on the Bosnia match. That is the only good thing happening in Bosnia. There might be too much expectation for them there. If they go to the World Cup, then it will seem that we are all right, then the country is all right. It will allow for a lot of national fantasizing. Everyone is speaking about it. It’s the most important thing that has happened in Bosnia since the war, by far.”

But we start by talking about the soccer culture of the Sarajevo from youth and, in particular, about Hemon’s memory of matches on the streets. Hemon never competed within a league structure. Soccer’s everyday quality resonates within detail from the recent story collection, Love and Obstacles. Hemon conjures the “heartbreakingly green” pitch at the club he grew up supporting, FK Zeljeznicar. The stadium in the Grbavica section stood on the front line of war. According to Jonathan Wilson in Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football, players and club officials had to clear the pitch of mines when the Sarajevo siege finally lifted.

In “The Conductor,” Hemon positions the narrator in sight of boys trying to retrieve a soccer ball trapped in a Miljacka River whirlpool. He thinks of “a device I had used once upon a time on my own lost ball: a crate is strung on a rope that stretches from bank to bank, and boys on either bank hold the ends of the rope, manipulating it until the ball is caught.”

In one sentence, Hemon conveys a vital anthropological snippet that speaks to transmission of culture—the ball-retrieval technique has been passed from one generation to the next—to cooperation between fellows and to the value of a totemic object, the ball, that permits social interaction.

Hemon saw many balls swirling in such Miljacka River pools. He competed on a Sarajevo playground that featured a slide near one of the goals. The following transcript picks up with this recollection.

Interview with Aleksandar Hemon, 12 November 2009

AH: If you were running toward the goal and wanted to score you had to duck and go under the slide. And all those who had not grown up in that particular neighborhood playing on the playground would get hurt. In school there were no school teams. There were no coaches, few school tournaments.

GG: Was this a good soccer education? Were there good players?

AH: There were particular kind of players—players who are very skillful with the ball, much like Brazilian players. Any Brazilian players who grew up playing on the beach and juggling the ball have this tremendous talent. The great players need to enter a system where their talent is converted into something lasting. There were some good players in the former Yugoslavia who entered the academies of larger clubs, and they were trained well.

In some ways it’s like chess. You can be talented at playing chess, but at some point you hit this ceiling. You cannot outsmart yourself unless you start studying the games or practicing and playing against the great players. I suppose I never entered that next level.

GG: [Eduardo] Galeano says as a youth player he aspired to make words do what he could not do with the ball. Did you have that experience or did you have other aspirations of being a footballer?

AH: I have a hard time living if I’m not playing or watching soccer, but playing mainly. … If there’s a connection between writing and playing football, it’s the sense of total presence in the world. The Granta essay touches on that. The sense of total presence—when you have the ball and you know where people around you are, and you know what is going to happen. Somehow your body knows where the ball is going to go and what is going to happen. And you have this increased awareness of your surroundings and of the presence of other people and of the course the action will probably take. And that’s nearly a transcendental feeling. I can only imagine what it would be like to feel or do something like that in the finals of the World Cup.

In writing, too—although it doesn’t happen so much at the level of the physical—at the best moments I have a sense when I’m writing of total presence in the world.

GG: Do you get the same transcendental or spiritual feeling as a spectator, watching the sport, or does that come just by playing?

AH: Watching is a little more passive, because it’s not your body reacting. But because I’ve played, I know what it might be like. I’m able to imagine what a great player might feel in a situation like that, when something incredible happens. I begin to imagine the transcendence that that player experiences.

On 2 Mar 02, Bergkamp eludes Greek defender Nikos Dabizas of Newcastle to contribute to a 2–0 Arsenal victory in an FA Cup quarterfinal. “Here was one touch so sophisticated that it did not so much guide the ball as issue it a series of instructions,” writes Sam Wallace in the Daily Telegraph.

If you remember the great goal, the [Diego] Maradona goal in ’86 in Mexico, when he ran past the English defense, that’s something thrilling to watch. One of the greatest goals I’ve seen is Dennis Bergkamp playing for Arsenal against Newcastle, when he somehow touched the ball so the ball went around the defender on one side, and Bergkamp went the other side. … I can understand the physics of it, what he did with his foot, but the idea … how he would have thought to do that is just amazing. When you see this you know something extraordinary has happened. … There was some confluence of cosmic forces that allowed it to happen.

GG: The story “The Conductor” from your latest collection, Love and Obstacles, includes a brief narrative about boys trying to retrieve a football that has gone into the river. There is a rope between the two banks and a crate in the middle. It sounds like this is something you have seen, that soccer was such a part of growing up that this solution already existed for practical problems.

AH: I have never done it, but I’ve seen boys doing that, because boys will be playing soccer near the river and the ball will go in. And then the river would take [the balls] and they would end up in a whirlpool. … There would be a crowd of balls in the river, in the middle of the river. Clever boys constructed this device and tried to catch the ball. They would catch a few of them. I have never done it, but I watched them doing that often.

GG: Sarajevo before wartime was known to be a tolerant, diverse city. Was soccer something that divided or brought communities together or did you think about it in those terms?

AH: There were two main clubs. Fans of those clubs were at odds. It didn’t used to be violent, but there was rivalry. It was a big derby, as is the case in Rome—Roma and Lazio—or Real and Atlético Madrid, or Liverpool and Everton. Those were not organized along ethnic lines. It was more along class lines. One of the clubs, the younger club, FC Sarajevo, was founded in 1945, which is to say it was founded [by] the Communist left wing. And they were always thought to be more privileged and supported by the power structures.

The other one, which I supported, Zeljeznicar, which means “the railroad worker,” was founded in the ’20s. It was a union club founded by railroad workers. This is the mythology around it. It was more of a grassroots club, let’s say, more [connected] to people. It was smaller, more modest and of course we always played better football. So there was that rivalry. But it was not divided in Sarajevo along ethnic lines. Within Yugoslavia in the late ’80s and early ’90s there were a lot of rivalries which reflected the political conflict that culminated in the war. [Ed.: See 10 Dec 07 for an anthropological approach to the Sarajevo–Zeljeznicar derby.]

One of the first conflicts in the war was at a game between Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb in Zagreb, where somehow local police got involved, and the players got involved. It was a mass fight. … But there were no ethnic divisions between clubs.

GG: How strong was your attachment to clubs in Sarajevo and the former Yugoslavia?

AH: I am a “railroad worker,” Zeljeznicar. They have blue and white stripes on their jerseys like Deportivo La Coruña. The other one, Sarajevo, had claret shirts. I grew up near Zeljo stadium. When we were kids and we didn’t go to the games, we could hear the roar when they scored and we would always know the score. I would go to games when I had money, but when I was a kid I had no money. We would linger around the stadium. Once or twice we jumped the fence and got in. But it was hard and risky. Kids would fall and break their arms. Sometimes they would let the kids in at halftime. If you lingered at the stadium and waited, a good member of the security personnel would let the kids in, open the gates and let us in so we could watch the second half.

A 1905 photograph demonstrates how long players have plied Chicago midfields. According to Dave Litterer, Pullman Car Works, a national power with both men’s and women’s sides, and Original Wanderers contested the first association football match in the city in 1893. The National Soccer League was founded in 1920. (SDN-004083, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum)

GG: Speaking of the Granta essay, what are the cultural complexities of football in Chicago? In Toronto, for example, ethnic identities have been preserved, but you write about a potluck, a mixing bowl of ethnicities and playing styles.

AH: These are pickup games. People show up at a certain spot, and whoever was there would play. So it was not exclusive in any way. Some of the games German organizes, there would be five or six teams of 11 people. It was really hard in some of the games when we lost in 15 minutes, to whoever scores two goals. Most of the time, in fact, unless you had a good team … unless you were on the winning team you would linger on the sideline and wait to play. And you would just hang out with people.

In city leagues many teams are organized along ethnic lines. It’s not necessarily a racist thing. It’s just that people have played together and then they form a team. They put money together, and they might have a coach, and they might have some semiprofessional players and so on. So … the National League, one of Chicago’s top leagues, was dominated by a Syrian team for a few years in the ’90s.

But then there are also teams that are combined. People I have played pickup soccer with, some of them joined a team which was financed—jerseys, membership fees and all that—by an Albanian from Montenegro, who I play with. … He would pick the good players, and I would go and watch them and play pickup games with them on their days off. They would consist of people from Togo and Bosnia and South America, Argentina, any number of nations. Pickup games are always multiethnic and multicultural—whatever “multi-” word you wish to use—because people just show up. And you cannot segregate people on the streets of Chicago.

GG: In some sense it’s like a football paradise. The game does not take on the surrounding issues.

AH: In those leagues, they are fun to play but it is far more serious. There are fights, there is cheating. When the referee is not watching, someone might elbow someone else, because there is something at stake. There was more pain involved.

Pickup games would get serious, but it didn’t happen too often that people would get into a serious fight, let alone try to cheat. When I played with German, he was the referee. You couldn’t dive in the box. It didn’t work that way. The game was always negotiated. This is the essence of a pickup game and what I like about a pickup game. It was always negotiated by the players. There was no outside structure. It is what we agreed to do, which in some ways is how democracy works—good democracy. It’s not that you enter a structure that provides you a position, but rather that you find a group of people, define a common goal and practice what you can’t practice alone.

GG: Do you connect your development as a writer—finding voice as a writer in English—with finding this community of footballers in Chicago?

AH: Obviously most of them were immigrants. What I knew about immigration, or what I thought I knew, was formed in communication with immigrants coming from all over the place. It would be different, for instance, if I had only spent time somehow with Bosnians. I played football with Africans and South Americans and Eastern Europeans and Western Europeans—the whole range of immigration experiences.

Obviously the sense of immigration is not the same for someone who came from Germany to work for a bank in Chicago and someone who jumped the fence. I played with a guy, who was a great player, who was an illegal immigrant. At the time I knew him he had been in Chicago for 11 years and was illegal. He had a degree in math but was working as a busboy. So you have a whole range of situations in immigration if you play in that kind of crowd. If I only played with Mexicans or only with Bosnians or only with Germans, it’s a different picture.

When I started playing with German—I think that is in the Granta essay—somebody once showed me a photo album that had a lot of photos of all the people who played with German before I started playing. I realized it was possible to have a history in this country and in this city with other people who are also immigrants. It wasn’t that only natives had histories. It was also a history of people who came from elsewhere.

GG: Your self-description in this essay is that of a serious player. I play in a park in Atlanta every Saturday. We have a player who comes occasionally, Ben from Bosnia. He has some of the same characteristics. He doesn’t think the game should be played for relaxation. As you state, “I suggest that they go and run on a fucking treadmill and let me play the game the way the game’s supposed to be played.” Is that something you absorbed early on?

AH: I always took it very seriously. I always want to win. That’s the essence of the game. It was more that we are involved in this common project. We should all take it seriously, because we depend on each other—the common project being organized around a willingness to win. Otherwise, why play? Why not run on a treadmill or just juggle the ball? I do expect from people on my team to put in their best effort. I sometimes express it too loudly.

GG: At some point in the essay you’ve moved onto a new location, a new field in Chicago, where there are Americans who are venturing onto the pitch. The image I remember is of them huddling somewhere, not mixing, isolating themselves. Is this representative to you of an isolated United States that fears the unknown, that fears the foreign influences?

AH: I wouldn’t go as far as that. … It was something, I don’t know where it comes from. In this particular neighborhood, where young Americans live and then move on upwards, kind of a transitory neighborhood, there’s this disinclination I discovered when I was playing among younger professional Americans to form lasting relationships—friendships, in fact—with people that you might be playing soccer with. It was just a game that you get in and out of. It may have been just plain shyness. Part of the whole culture of soccer is meeting people who you can talk with. There are so many stories I’ve heard from people that I played soccer with and still am playing with. I know their histories and their stories, and they tell me stories and I have them. “What happened? Where did you come from? How did you come here?” It’s very interesting to me. …

At least in that time, the Americans I was playing with did not want to get involved with any kind of personal stuff. It was just in the game and getting out. It was exercise, not communication, not spending time together. To make a general assumption about Americans, I don’t want to do this.

I’ve been playing with an American for a long time, a guy named Charlie Callahan, who is the kind of person who collects histories, can tell you stories … who in the crowd that I’m playing with right now every year collects all the addresses and contact information and distributes it to everyone who’s involved, so we know who’s where and what they’re doing. So he has the same instincts that I might have. He’s older than 60 so it’s not like he’s a new generation of American. It all comes down to an individual sensibility of people who stay on to play. This is partially because this crowd that I’m playing with, it’s more stable. There’s a steady core of people playing. So when I was injured for a couple of years with my knee surgery, when I went back to play they accepted me immediately. I stayed in touch as friends with some of them. When I went back to play I fit in right away. There’s a new set of faces of people which I now know, and there are people I’ve been playing with for many, many years. …

The games that I describe with Lido, they were more transient, more open. There wasn’t a steady crowd, but whoever showed up at a certain time.

GG: Do you have a sense in the broader United States how soccer is a core integrating or comfort mechanism for newcomers and how it’s serving that function?

AH: Whether you are a team organizer and your friends have immigrants from your ethnic group or country, it provides an opportunity for social life within that particular group of immigrants or just at large. For me right now, because I have two kids, I don’t really go out with friends. I play soccer with friends. I don’t have time to go out. I don’t particularly like partying, and I travel a lot, and I want to spend time with my kids. By and large for me soccer is my social life. … It is communicating by passing the ball.

That was the case, too, in the mid-’90s when I started playing again. I was lonely. There were few Bosnians here. I had to work. I was working hard. The communication—not assimilation, but adaptation to new circumstances—a lot of it took place while playing soccer. I started talking to people because I started playing soccer. … I learned to listen, more importantly, when I was playing soccer.

GG: In an earlier essay [“Win, Lose, or Riot,” Colors (Benetton), no. 61] you wrote about the connection between violence and football. You describe kicking a player in the head in one of these Chicago matches. In my conversations with Americans, this is something that comes up—the quintessential example [Zinédine] Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final. There seems to be association between football and violence in Americans’ minds. What is your view on the place of violence in football?

AH: If the game is important and there is intensity, there are increased emotions. When I kicked Clemente, after that I sought help with my anger management, because the moment I calmed down I knew I was way out of line. I apologized to Clemente. … I played with Clemente after that, and there was no lasting damage, physical or emotional. He has not tried to retaliate. We did not have a running argument – none of that. … It comes down to respecting other people you play with. …

As for fans’ violence, soccer is but an occasion. If they played baseball in the ’80s in Liverpool … there would have been riots and fights over baseball games. There’s no doubt about that. One of the changes in the UK that led to a decrease in violence is partly because football became a middle-class game more than a working-class game. The violence in the ’80s in England for instance—this is no justification—a lot of it was stemming from high unemployment and adverse social conditions for the working class. What was played out in that violence was social conflict and class conflict. That was sorted out through legal action and also by increasing ticket prices. Things have changed in that way.

Violence is not inherent in soccer, despite American perceptions, any more than it is in football or baseball. In America, to a large extent, sports has always been a middle-class thing, that is, going to see the games, because the tickets are expensive.

GG: Over past decades there has been a connection between male writers and artists and football—Galeano, [Albert] Camus, [Vladimir] Nabokov and so on. Does this connection among creative people speak to the love of fantasy or, among men, does football seem more connected to masculinity than the arts?

AH: All of sports was male until very recently. Many males are interested in sport. It is good that it is changing, so sports is not only male. There is no better sport than soccer on this—it’s particularly conducive to transcendental moments, but those moments can take place in other sports. That might be appealing to creative people. It’s so widespread, really, that it’s hard not to see it and enjoy for a lot of people. There might be just as great a percentage of non-creative people who like football—doctors, for instance, someone like that.

I don’t see my love of soccer as a symptom of my creative mind, because I have a lot of so-called non-creative friends. They have the same attitude and interest in soccer as I do. For hours we can talk about football and remember the games, the stories.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. Dylan Tooby says:

    Great article. Very insightful.

    By the way, that Bergkamp goal is easily one of the best goals of all time.

    What a touch!

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