Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Joys of Meeting Almost-Stars

9:00AM Wednesday, July 15, 2010
San Jose, CA

European soccer players damp with sweat were signing autographs within grabbing distance from me on this warm summer morning. Adults and teens of Croatian, Latino, Brit, and white-Californian decent lined the barricades patiently awaiting their turns.

Niko Kranjcar signs an autograph

And then there were the two East Asian and South Asian girls, Ravenna and me, sandwiched between modern-day Beavis and Butthead, and a middle-aged man. We had taken off on this weekday morning to see Tottenham Hotspur, an English soccer team who is in town to play the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday. Having just finished their practice, they were now right in front of us, so close that my photos have captured stubble and pores.

Though Tottenham Hotspur had at least four players at the World Cup this year, most of the guys are not famous, and largely unknown in the US. As none of the World Cup players showed up at practice today, I did not know any of them. Still, in just having seen them today in this friendly setting, they easily won my support.

Carlo Cudicini, Goalkeeper

Nevermind that our backs were burning and we were sweating, and it was unusually humid. We indulged with huge grins on our faces as we admired the grunt work behind those chiseled six packs, nimble footwork and gorgeous passes.

For an hour and forty minutes or so, the Spurs did various drills with medicine balls, hurdles, and elastic bands to warm up. Then they engaged in a passing and shooting practice.

It was so cool...

Have a look at the video!

When practice was over, the players guzzled water bottles, shed their “male sports bras,” playfully tossed a football with a couple of 49ers players, and then came around to the spectators.

Tom Huddlestone and Sebastien Bassong sign autographs

After routinely seeing footballers argue with refs and foul each other aggressively on TV, and having read about offensive off-pitch behaviors, I was shocked to hear these Tottenham players saying said “Cheers” and “Thank you” as they returned autographed posters and T-shirts to fans. It was impossible to not find this charming.

Had these players been Kaká or Messi, or--gads--Ronaldo, I could not imagine there would have been an open practice that was free of charge. The scene would have been totally different. People would have been fighting to get a good view, and such an open and loose autograph session simply would have been inconceivable. But Tottenham guys are far less known, and we were seeing them in the US, where soccer is not popular.

That is what made it all the better still.

To see these guys in a casual, relaxed setting, without the veil of prescribed camera angles and network commentary made the experience more intimate, familiar. To be able to be so close to them, with minimal security made me feel like I was part of the practice, even though I knew I was anonymous to them.

You can’t get this kind of experience from TV. I watched most of the World Cup games which were thrilling and left me feeling a bit drunk with awe. But I did not feel any personal connection to the players the way I did today.

Robbie Keane reacting to Ravenna's comment that her Irish colleague would be jealous.

I have a feeling that I will be rooting for Tottenham Hotspur the next time I see them, no matter who they are playing.

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