The Nutmeg

As the bus traveled through Tangier, I saw soccer fields and longed to play again. Three years had passed since my last game due to an injury in high school. In Morocco, I searched for a team to join but faced difficulties. Then, there was a knock at my door.

“Ready to go?” my friend Amanda asked.

“Yeah, just give me a minute.” Going to the mall had slipped my mind while I was busy researching.

Standing at the top of the hill, Amanda, our classmate Jo, and I tried to hail a taxi to the mall. After waiting for twenty minutes with no luck, we were about to give up when a car pulled over to the curb. Through the open window rolled down, we saw our advisor Douaa’s husband, Ilyes.

“What are you guys doing?”

“We’ve been trying to get a ride to the mall for twenty minutes,” I replied.

“Hop in, we’ll take you there. By the way, this is my husband Ilyes.”

When I went to the gym on campus for my workout the next day, I ran into Ilyes in the middle of his own workout.

“Hey David, we met yesterday in the car, right?”

“Yeah, how’s it going?”

“Tired,” he laughed. The exhaustion from a good workout is something anyone can relate to regardless of where they are or their cultural background.

After some small talk, our conversation shifted. “Do you like soccer?” he asked.

My face lit up. “I love soccer! What team do you support?”

“FC Barcelona.”

“Oh, that’s one of my favorite teams too. Messi is the greatest player of all time. I really admire his game.”

We soon got back to our workouts and before I knew it, he finished and said goodbye.

The next morning while waiting for friends in the dining hall, Douaa came over and turned to me. “My husband mentioned he was talking to you in the weight room.”

“Yeah, we were chatting about soccer a lot.”

“Do you play?”

“Yes, I’ve been playing for as long as I can remember.”

“Oh really? Would you be interested in joining a league here? Ilyes plays in one.”

“Are you serious?”

“Absolutely. I’ll get you the details.”

A few days later, Douaa messaged me asking if I was available for a game that night at seven. Was I available? Of course!

The day dragged on slowly. Walking back to campus that afternoon from my volunteer work at the physical therapy clinic, I couldn’t stop thinking about the upcoming game and how rusty I might be. My stomach was in knots.

Back on campus, I headed to the patio outside the cafeteria. My friend Sarah waved and called out to me, “David, ready for the game?”

“More than ready!”

Once I sat down, many people started asking me questions. “Are you playing against Moroccans?”

“Uh, yeah.” Growing up playing high-level soccer in Massachusetts, I never let my opponents worry me. Why start now?

After changing into my uniform, I made my way to the field with a group of supporters following me. My fellow students, whom I had only known for just over a month, were behind me cheering and rooting for me to do my best. It felt like they were my family.

Once on the field, I began to warm up—a few juggles and shots on goal accompanied by oohs and cheers from the crowd. It felt like I was the leader of a circus act, entertaining my fans with lions and tigers.

A few minutes later, Ilyes introduced me to the other players. The language barrier prevented us from talking much, but a simple handshake and a heartfelt salaam were enough to bond with my new teammates.

The match began and my heart raced with excitement. I had been in many kick-offs before, but this one felt different. As soon as the opposing team passed the ball back, I sprinted towards it. I successfully blocked their pass to the other side of the field, earning cheers from my friends in the crowd. Their chanting reminded me of high school, when we would have a public announcer introduce our starting lineup and my name would boom over the loudspeakers, sending adrenaline coursing through my body. These local players were tough opponents, despite their age and physical appearance. They were skilled at reading the game and had impressive passing and shooting techniques. About ten minutes into the game, I encountered a large, strong opponent with possession of the ball.

In situations like this, you are taught to contain your opponent or force them backward. I slowed down as I approached him, but he quickly faked to the right and then unexpectedly put the ball between my legs and ran past me. It took me a moment to process what had just happened – I had been nutmegged. It was a humiliating moment for me as a defender, but also an admiration for my opponent’s skill on the ball. “Well played,” I said to him with a smile as he returned it with a handshake and hug. His name was Ilyes and he proved to be the best player on the field with his light footwork, precise passing and shooting abilities. In one play, he received the ball deep in our defensive half of the field, made a quick pass and then sprinted down the left side of the field. He effortlessly beat two defenders by changing direction and then faced off against our final defender with a feint inside before gracefully flicking the ball outside, leaving the defender in his dust. I had positioned myself near the far goal post, ready to receive his pass for an easy goal, but instead he took a powerful and precise shot that sailed over our keeper’s head and into the top corner of the net. It was a stunning display of skill and I couldn’t help but be in awe of his talent.

Halfway through the game, we took a water break and I joined my friend Devon by the fence. She was wearing an Arsenal jersey, a team from London who were rivals with my favorite club. “Can’t you just change your shirt?” I joked with her. But then she turned around and I saw that she had covered up the name of her favorite player with “DAVID.”

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed. “That is so cool! Can we take a picture?” We raced onto the field and had our friends snap photos of us together.

On the other side of the fence, I noticed a group of my friends holding up a sign and waving it excitedly. I walked closer to take a better look and saw that it read “GO DAVID!” Seeing those words brought tears to my eyes. These were people I had only known for a little over a month, but they were already supporting me in an adventure that meant everything to me.

The game continued, and despite my determination, I still hadn’t scored yet. Scoring goals wasn’t my forte as a defender, but I was determined to make it happen. After missing a few good opportunities, I finally had another chance when the ball bounced free about 10 yards from the goal. I kicked it with all my might, aiming for the upper corner. But just as the ball was about to enter the net, the opposing goalie made an incredible leap and deflected it off the crossbar and out of bounds.

I started to lose hope that I would ever score in this game, until a play began to develop. My teammate Ilyes took control of the ball deep in our territory and passed it to our other teammate. He then quickly passed it back to me, and I saw an opening across the field where Ilyes was making his way towards the goal. With perfect timing, he passed the ball to me and I was able to easily shoot it into an open net.

Ecstatic, I ran towards Ilyes and gave him a handshake and hug, thanking him for the perfect assist. It was my first “international” goal, and in that moment all my happy memories from high school came rushing back. I looked around for my dad in the crowd, always my biggest supporter, before realizing again that I was in Tangier surrounded by Arabic speakers.

But scoring that goal on the field in Tangier meant more than any victory or championship because it reminded me of why soccer is called the Beautiful Game. It transcends borders of language, religion, culture, and social status. And I will continue to play wherever my travels take me, spreading joy and happiness through the universal language of soccer.

David Backholm is a Health, Wellness, and Occupational Studies major at the University of New England.

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