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.

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