NTOABOMA—When I was just a little boy in Ntoaboma, I played a lot of soccer. My friends and I would launch whole pitches between the backwalls of compound homes. We dribbled soccer balls made from all sorts of things: (1) balls made from rugs held together by old pairs of socks or (2) plastic balls which acted more like balloons (san-ber-warime) than soccer balls. “San-ber-warime” was an apt description of the path that balloon balls took. The balls simply defied physics and logic when kicked, and so the name, “come again and marry me.” This was the fitting probabilistic description of the indeterminate (or improbable) behavior of such balls.
Yet, throughout my early years of being introduced to the game by older mentors on sandy pitches—avoiding, in addition to the opponent, one piece of rock here and another there in the same play—nothing fascinated me more than a certain kind of soccer ball made from glue. When I received a stipend here and there for being a good son, I spent it on glue-balls; so peppy were these balls that they went exactly where you never intended them to go. These glue balls traversed more indeterminate paths than balloon balls, although there was something more descriptive about their random behavior. Still, the glue-balls did more than your feet intended. They took random paths of no particular value to the players. Of course, we played with bare-feet which matched in equal measure some of the frustrations we felt with the balls at competitive games with neighboring villages.
We used to say to ourselves that if only we had the facilities and provisions of the boys in England and the US, we would make the game of soccer even more fun, and more competitive and certainly, we believed, we would make better progress at training should we choose to pursue careers in soccer.
Decades later, after those “san-ber-warime” (come-again-and-marry-me) days—and all the experiences in Ntoaboma—catching a soccer game here and there never grew old. I arrived in the United States, Brooklyn, and I quickly made some friends. Luckily, most of these newfound buddies loved the game, and they had played it growing up in much the same way I had played it growing up in Ntoaboma. I would tour all the soccer pitches that I could reach by public transportation. I would join pick-up games here and there. I would play on some of the most carefully manicured (golf) lawns for pitches. I would play on artificial turfs. I would play outside, inside, in the snow and in the rain. I would play small poles and big poles. I would join the mini leagues. We would travel here and there on chartered tours to compete here and there across the nation. I would quit old teams and join new ones. I would pay to play and take money to play. I would play for fun and for glory. I would break legs, toes, and I would have surgeries. I would recover and play again. And then I would become occupied with other aspects of life and retire myself!
That is soccer, in a nutshell, for those of us who grew up playing it every day without fail. More recently, as I walked through an aisle in a big-box American store, I decided to check out what has become of soccer boots (or cleats). What I found was the proliferation of what capitalism dictates: soccer boots in all colors, from dirt cheap plastic boots to expensive faux-leather plastic cleats. I tried on a few. The feel I expected, and which I was used to, was absent, except that the new cleats looked a lot sportier than the shoes I had played in years earlier. And the new boots looked nicer than all the pairs of soccer cleats I had come to collect over the years. The new fast-fashion boots you find in stores today look a whole lot better than bare-feet in Ntoaboma. Or so I thought!
Then it crossed my mind as a walked through the pile of soccer boots made of earth-killing synthetic components: Since Ntoaboma, I had never enjoyed the game of soccer anywhere else. So immaculately revealing was the thought of the early days in Ntoaboma that I reminisced about the time when we kicked and chased around socks-balls, balloon-balls, and glue-balls around in barefoot between the back walls of compound homes. Nothing; no pick-up game, no competitive match on the most glorified lawns; no soccer cleats, even those made of animal skin, equaled the sheer happiness of those simple days in Ntoaboma when we kicked and chased around balls that defied physics, in the sand, with our bare-feet.
It quickly dawned on me that when I was a child, I certainly thought like a child. I was happy, but I thought material provisions would make me and my friends even happier. We had happy sports, but I thought commercial sports would be happier. I was wrong. The fact is that commercial sports do not make one happy. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. Now I see in the mirror that materialism does not bring happiness. It cannot buy happiness. The fact was simple to grasp: We were happy in Ntoaboma playing soccer the way we played it because we made ourselves happy. We enjoyed playing soccer because we enjoyed being around one another. We looked forward to playing soccer because we looked forward to being around our friends. It was never going to be the soccer, or the fine soccer cleats, or the leather woven balls, or the printed linen jerseys, or the carefully manicured lawn-pitches that would make us happy. Life was never about that. We had no development or advancement to accomplish in soccer in order to feel better about ourselves, about our lives. We just felt better about ourselves. We had nothing we didn’t need and we needed nothing we didn’t have: We had Happiness! That was it. Be happy!