A carefully lofted pass drops among a crowd of players in front of the bright orange soccer net. On the first bounce, one of them cradles the ball with his chest and stomach, guiding it to the ground. As a defender dives to block the pass, the man with the ball flicks it to a blond teammate standing alone a few yards away. The teammate, Richard Penrod, cocks his foot and fires a blur of black and white into the goal.
Richard, 13, loves to get an open shot and seems to have a knack for eluding defenders and being in the right place when a decisive pass is made. Of course, part of the knack comes from practice. Lots of practice.
Go to the elementary school behind his house in Simi Valley, California, and chances are you’ll find Richard playing in a game or dribbling the ball through the grass with his older brother John, 15. That is, unless he’s busy with a Church project. Richard is the deacons quorum president, and his conviction of his calling keeps him constantly on the phone dialing reminders of activities and responsibilities to his friends and fellow priesthood holders. (He’s in the Simi Valley Third Ward, Simi Valley California Stake.) With Church duties, as with sports, Richard knows it’s necessary to spend time to do a good job.
Richard isn’t the only family member involved with soccer. Besides John, Susan, 10, and David, 7, will rush to the fireplace mantel to show their trophies when the sport is mentioned. And when any of the children play in a game, the whole family goes to watch. That means nine passengers in the station wagon, but it also provides a private cheering section on the sidelines.
The Penrods’ interest in soccer is increasingly typical of American families, including those in the Church. Soccer, long a favorite sport throughout the rest of the world, is finally storming into popularity in the U.S., with youth leagues organized in every state. Many stake athletic programs now include ward soccer teams.
Richard’s father, a junior college professor, says, “We were looking for a game we could get the whole family involved in, without risk of a lot of injuries and without having to buy lots of equipment. This seemed ideal.”
Brother Penrod was right. Soccer is a relatively safe sport, with emphasis on ball handling and finesse, not on body contact. A small player can often outmaneuver and outshoot larger opponents. Rules are uncomplicated, and soccer can be played almost anywhere, just by marking boundaries on the ground. Modified versions of the game can even be played indoors.
Out on the field, Richard makes the game look simple. He feints, counterfeints, and passes. He sees an opening and sprints for it, waving his hand to let fellow players know he’s in the clear. On defense he shouts instructions and directs traffic as though he’s been playing all his life—which is just about the truth. His expertise, along with his scholarship in school, have qualified him for two trips abroad with soccer teams—one to Glenrothes, Scotland, another to Den Haag, Holland. While there, Richard lived with families and attended school, as well as playing exhibition soccer.
Of course, there have been embarrassing times, too. Like slipping and falling in the mud, or getting clobbered with a lopsided score, or losing every game during the season when Dad was the head coach. But some of that has to be expected.
How Richard plays in a particular match is determined by two things: which position he’s playing (he plays three), and which team he’s playing for at the time (he plays on four). On the ward team the ages vary significantly. So do the skill levels. But there, playing is mostly for fun. On the all-star team or in league competition, games are closely contested, and each move makes a difference.
Richard and John will talk for hours about their favorite sport. John plays forward, an offensive position that puts him on the front line of attack. Richard usually plays halfback, the midfield position, which challenges him by requiring both offensive and defensive skills. However, Richard has also played forward, as well as fullback (the last defender between the ball and the goalie).
They disagree about which is the ideal position to play. John says forwards have the most enjoyable job on the field because they go where they want. “It’s kind of like playing hide-and-seek with the defense,” he says. But he also notes that forwards often take the blame for missed goals. Richard counters that halfbacks have the fun of playing at both ends of the field, which, though it demands endurance, allows them power to control the tempo of the game.
John says fullbacks get the most rest, that their main task is to steal the ball and relay it to the opposite end of the field. Richard notes, however, that the defense is often outnumbered, and the fullback’s role is vital in preventing goals. Both agree, however, that the goalie may have the roughest assignment. He’s expected to analyze each shot-on-goal correctly and position himself properly to block or deflect it, often diving face down on the turf in the effort.
The two young men also discuss dreams, like playing on a professional or Olympic team, or even more immediate wishes, like attending a soccer clinic at BYU.
At a home evening recently, Richard brought out a scrapbook he keeps; it’s full of his souvenirs. He passed it around the family circle, describing photos he took himself and clippings from newspapers. The rest of the family joined in with other stories, laughter, and warmth. It was clear that they were all involved in learning lessons through their Church activity and through sports. They were learning about brotherhood by working together; they were learning to plan their time to be able to do things they enjoy and still meet school, Church, and household responsibilities; they were learning about family love, caring, and sharing; and they were learning about fixing goals for themselves. It was clear that they’re involved with soccer—and with each other—for more than just the kicks.
The International Sport
Imagine banning soccer because it might hinder the national defense! That’s what several English kings and queens did during medieval times. They were afraid young men would become so engrossed in kicking the ball that they would lose interest in archery, and the army depended on good archers. At about the same time, during a battle between the Scottish and the Irish, soldiers threw down their weapons and played a soccer match instead!
Such enthusiasm has been typical of “football,” as soccer is known throughout most of the world, ever since the Romans brought the game with them when they invaded Britain. Other reports say the Chinese invented their own version of the game. Most of the early forms of the sport consisted mainly of a brawl between two villages, with a playing field up to eight miles long!
By the 1860s, players’ associations were formed, and these watchdogs created and modified the rules that govern the game. Soccer is enjoyed in virtually every country in the world and is the national sport in most of them. In South America many children grow up bouncing the ball, and quick foot reflexes and butting the ball with the head are a normal part of childhood. Pélé, Brazil’s great team captain who also helped introduce professional soccer in New York, couldn’t afford a soccer ball as a child. Instead, he kicked around a pile of old socks tied together.
Soccer differs from many other sports because use of the hands is generally forbidden. The ball may be kicked, butted, or bumped with any other part of the body. The goalie can use his hands within the penalty area (a square marked in front of the goal), but can’t take more than four steps without bouncing the ball.
The field is slightly larger than an American football field. Two teams of 11 players each (including a goalie for each side) play with a leather ball slightly larger than a volleyball and slightly smaller than a basketball. Penalties are assessed for rough play, illegal throw-ins (the . ball, when it goes out of bounds, is returned to play by throwing it with two hands over the head while both feet remain on the ground), and offsides. Offsides means a player without the ball has run behind the last defender in front of the goalie. (The purpose of this rule is to keep players from hovering around the goal.) Some penalties result in direct kicks on the goal, with only the goalie to defend, while others place the ball back into play through a kick to a teammate. Corner kicks are used when the ball goes out of bounds over the end line but not between the goal.
There are various offensive and defensive alignments, but their purpose remains basically the same: On offense the strategy is to pass the ball around quickly enough to get it to an open player with a clean shot at the goal. On defense the strategy is to steal the ball and redirect it to the opposite end of the field.
Those interested in a more detailed explanation of the game might want to take this magazine to a soccer buff and ask a few questions. It won’t require much to start him talking.