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SANDY BANKS / Life as We Live It

L.A.'s Mosaic Coalesces on the Soccer Field

October 12, 1998|SANDY BANKS

It's a melting pot in a way few things are, this broad expanse of scuffed playing field, dotted with blankets and lawn chairs, crisscrossed by hundreds of rainbow-colored jerseys moving up and down the field in herds, chasing black-and-white soccer balls.

Between the goal posts, the children of schoolteachers and janitors, movie producers and shoe salesmen, neurosurgeons and welfare moms jostle for space, scrambling to beat one another downfield.

On the sidelines, families who descend from Mexico and Yugoslavia, Nigeria and Argentina, India and Israel, shout together in accented English, cheering their children on.

It's a mosaic of the Los Angeles of today--one we seldom rub up against in our daily forays through neighborhoods segregated by class and race.

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One coach calls her "Mi Hija"; another reacts to each team misstep with a loud "Oy vey!" My daughter understands neither but gets the sentiment, nonetheless.

Instructions are yelled from the sidelines in Spanish and German, by parents who know the game of soccer as well as they know their own names. And no less enthusiastically in English and Korean, by parents who understand so little of soccer, "Kick the ball!" is all they know to say.

It's a sport whose popularity has exploded here, fueled in part by the immigration that we tend to blame for complicating so much of our lives.

About 3 million children now play in organized leagues nationwide--600,000 of those in California--and the numbers are growing each year. Already in Los Angeles, more children play soccer than football and baseball combined.

The game has entered the national lexicon through the ubiquitous moniker "Soccer Mom," a title intended to convey both its relentless demands and the suburban mind-set of the folks who play. But I have found it is more than that.

It can consume a family's life, with multiple weeknight practices, daylong schedules of weekend games, and requirements that parents do everything from chalking the fields and setting up goal posts to constructing team banners, bringing snacks and providing game day referees.

But there's something about that collective work that tends to build bonds and break barriers, creating a sense of community that can extend beyond the soccer field.

"What I have found with soccer, you end up with friends that you stay with for a while," says American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) coach Althea John, who grew up playing the game in the streets of Jamaica and has spent 10 years watching and coaching her three children's games here.

As their kids grow up, parents become familiar faces on the field.

"You spend years of your life there . . . seeing the same people over and over," John said.

"You get to know people you wouldn't ordinarily meet, and you find that you have a lot more in common than just soccer. You began sharing things about life, not just the game."

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Surrounded by soccer balls and water bottles, the young woman is hunched over an ice chest--now serving as a desk--struggling to find the words in English for what she wants to say. It is her turn to write the weekly account of her daughter's game for the soccer newsletter we receive each week.

"How do you spell 'awesome'?" she asks, erasing what she's written to start over again. Her daughter kneels beside her and translates from Korean what her mother wants to say, chronicling their team's victory that day.

Behind them, the next game has already begun. From the sidelines, a father yells at his daughter in Spanish to throw the ball in quicker next time. An elderly woman in an Indian sari leaps up from her chair and shouts as her granddaughter kicks the ball in to score. A tiny blond toddler kicks unsteadily at a soccer ball, mimicking her sister on the field.

My children, of course, notice none of this. They see soccer as Silver Streaks and Galaxy Girls, with teammates named Angelica, Dvora, Rasnik, Coula, Ashley, Giselle . . .

To them, it is not a human relations tool, but a big white net at the end of the field, waiting for a soccer ball to make its way in.

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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