The Spirit of the Game?

A game is never only a game. Here’s a story about how play and culture and history are never far apart and how it’s easiest to discover this when you encounter unfamiliar rules.

Soccer ball, Wilson Sporting Goods Company, 2005, from the collection of Strong National Museum of PlaySome years ago my daughter’s soccer team traveled to a tournament in Canada’s beautiful capital, Ottawa, to make a brave stand against some of Canada’s fiercest provincial players. Go Rockets! Go Blue! Hope stirred during the first half of a match with the Ontario champs as the Rockets trailed, impossibly, by only one goal. The momentum seemed to break, though, when the referee imposed an obscure (to us) “spirit of the game” penalty. Now hang on. These demure girls gave offense? No way! Spectators who witness boys’ warlike scraps will note how polite the girls’ game is by comparison; girls who knock each other down will invariably apologize—sorreee!

Girls' SoccerBut here was the problem: our players had been coached to relay strategy out loud. “Talk it up, Rockets!” But the moment the striker called out “my ball” to coordinate the attack and spread out the mid-fielders, she ran afoul of the local custom and attracted the linesman’s attention. This was a thoughtful game they played in Canada. During a time-out, the official explained to the puzzled foreigners that since no player could “own” a ball in play, therefore “one can plainly see” that any player “who should call ‘my ball” stood “clearly in violation of the spirit of the game.” I was thinking “sheesh what a moaner.” But, mindful that we were in a land that lay closer to the mother tongue, out loud I said: “Figures, we come to Canada to play and get called for a grammatical error.”

Teams from Quebec (just a few miles away) had traveled to the tournament, too. One of the Quebecois parents there to scout the game overheard the wisecrack and got a big laugh when she translated it for her friends. We soon discovered that the French-Canadians were considerably less circumspect about soccer. Whenever that ref edged nearby, they noisily bothered him with the cheeky nickname “erreur grammaticale.” I had apparently stirred the long-simmering language dispute between Marionette, gift in honor of Ruth Rosenfeld, from the collection of Strong National Museum of PlayEnglish-speaking and francophone Canadians. Or maybe they were just itching for a chance to revive it. (Remember that Quebec at times has had ambitions for a separate nationhood.)

Anyway, before long these natural allies became cross-border fans of the plucky American underdogs. They sent emissaries to later games to disturb the peace with their giant improvised air-horns. “Allez Roquettes! Allez les Bleus!” they shouted. And, during the elimination rounds now without our own team to cheer for, we found their red jerseys and returned the favor, “Allez! Les Rouges!”