More Than Just a Game

After giving up on my childhood dream of becoming a professional soccer player, I’ve found other ways to fulfill my love of the sport.

by Ayah Al-Masyabi

Painting by Ayah Al-Masyabi

When I was 5 or 6, I played soccer for the first time. In a school playground, I found a soccer ball lying on a patch of dirt and started kicking it away from me, then running to retrieve it.

I thought I was alone, but a few minutes later an older boy with ginger hair walked over and asked if he could play with me. I was shy and scared, but as we started passing to each other a strong feeling of joy bloomed in my chest.

A few minutes later, he gave me the ball and asked if I knew how to score a goal. I shook my head, so he set up an imaginary goal and taught me how to quickly transfer the ball from one foot to the other as I ran. He clapped and laughed, and it made me feel so special to do something right. He then showed me how he slammed his foot into the ball, making it soar into our imaginary goal. I was shocked by how well he did it, but when I tried the ball only slowly rolled on the ground.

Despite that, he started celebrating as if I had done it the right way. After that I fell in love with the game, and playing it always gave me a special kind of joy.

Later, in 4th grade, when I talked with friends who played in youth soccer leagues, they told me that they wanted to play soccer professionally like Alex Morgan or Lionel Messi. I started dreaming of one day being a famous forward who scored goals in big stadiums, too.

I begged my parents to let me play, but they said that soccer leagues were too expensive. On top of that, they worried about the stories of youth league coaches abusing their players, which were constantly on the news.

Then that year I was diagnosed with scoliosis, which became another reason my parents said no when I asked to play in a youth league. In my mind, it was only a small barrier to my chances of becoming a professional soccer player. However, as my spine continued to curve, it got harder and harder to play because I was in so much pain. Still, every year I asked my parents to change their minds.

Reality Check

Although I wasn’t allowed to play for a team, I still played soccer in my backyard. Even with my scoliosis, I would often kick the ball around our large patch of grass or play one-on-one with my brother on our deck. However, in early 2019, in 7th grade, I started to feel fire-like pains in my breast. I ignored the pain until it was too much to bear.

After being rushed from a clinic to two hospitals, it was confirmed that I had a breast infection.

Lying in a hospital bed after the surgery to remove the infection, in one of the weakest conditions I’ve ever been in, I had a lot of time to think, and my thoughts turned to soccer.

The reality that I had tried to ignore for so long came into focus. While I had good endurance, even if I started playing youth soccer now, I would be behind my peers who’d been playing for years. And I’d still be held back by my scoliosis. Plus, I had other hobbies, like painting and writing, that were growing into something I could actually do for a living. It was during this time that I accepted that I wasn’t going to become a professional soccer player. My heart hurt as I realized I was losing my dream of a future that I truly wanted and would never get back.

On the car drive back home, I looked out the window as we drove on the highway. Despite the gray clouds blocking the sun, it was bright outside. As I watched us pass many cars, I reflected on my decision. I knew that my dream was over, but I thought that I couldn’t give up on professional soccer entirely.

Maybe I could find another way to interact with the sport I loved and find the same amount of joy from it. Back then I didn’t know much of the professional soccer world, but I knew that there were leagues and the World Cup. It occurred to me that I could find teams to support and fall in love with. I could be a fan of the game.

Feeling Left Out

A block down from our house is a middle school with two soccer fields. Kids would often be out playing, and on Saturdays or Sundays the school’s team would play a match. It was so near that I could hear all the cheering and yelling from my room.

Hearing this every week made me sad that I wasn’t out there having fun too. I continued playing with my brother in our backyard, but it started to feel less and less exciting compared to the real thing. I knew I could go out and play with a ball in the park, but I wasn’t a part of a team and I would often have to stop because of my back and knee pain. I was also scared that if others saw me play, they would laugh because I was bad. I would look away or close the windows so I could lessen the jealousy I felt.

A few months after my surgery, I was listening to a podcast called Dear Hank and John and heard one of the hosts, John Green, mention the Premier League, a British soccer league. I googled it and asked my older sister, Sadiqah, and my Egyptian teacher about it. They were both soccer fans. They told me that they supported the Premier League team Liverpool Football Club (F.C.), because they liked Mohammad Salah, one of their star players, and pushed me to do the same. I also became invested in the United States national teams and discovered my local Major League Soccer (MLS) club, the Colorado Rapids.

Finding Community in Soccer Fandom

I slowly began following Liverpool FC, listened to soccer podcasts, and followed soccer newsletters. At first I struggled, being thrown into the world of professional soccer, feeling embarrassed that I knew so little. However, I quickly learned and fell deeper in love with soccer. I convinced my dad to let us get a streaming service to watch the games, and from then, I watched every single game I could with Sadiqah. It felt like I was transitioning from being on the outside of the soccer world I loved to being right in the middle of it. I felt welcomed into fan communities, whether they were online or made up of other soccer fans in my neighborhood, and I felt like I was a part of something bigger.

painting by ayah Al-Masyabi

In 10th grade I watched the U.S. Men’s team play Iran in the 2022 World Cup. The U.S. won 1-0 and advanced to the knockout stages of the World Cup!

I went and hugged every person I could find in the house with a huge smile on my face. I was full of joy and excitement and happiness. Every moment of the next three days leading up to their next game, I was elated. From dusk to dawn all I could think of was that winning goal and our survival in the competition. In my weekly meeting with my homeroom teacher, we talked for a solid five minutes about that magical goal and the excitement around the game.

Every time I went out to the store, I would hear people talking about it, and sometimes they would strike up a conversation with me. It felt like the whole country was invested. Despite us disappointingly being knocked out of the World Cup in the next game, the U.S. men had convinced the American public that they could compete on the international stage. They made us believe in them.

Watching my country be celebrated on the world stage made me feel like I was finally a part of a team, just not the one that played on the field.

I’ve also been inspired by the online fan communities that I’m a part of. In early 2022, in 9th grade, seeing other fans’ soccer-inspired art, I decided to try making my own. My first soccer-related painting was of Liverpool FC’s Kostas Tsmikas celebrating after scoring a game-winning penalty kick. Since then, a lot of my art and writing has to do with soccer and the stories that surround it. Most of my papers for school are about soccer or other sports.

With the encouragement of my parents I’ve even submitted a story and a painting to the Scholastic Writing and Art Awards. Both pieces were awarded a Gold Key in my region of the competition! This proved to me that I am good enough at art and writing to have a career in them. I also learned that I could successfully incorporate my passion for soccer into compelling stories and depictions of the sport. Since then, I’ve also been named a finalist for NPR’s Student Podcast contest for my entry on the history of American soccer and how I became a fan.

Loving the Game in My Own Way

Just as I fell in love with soccer as a kid, becoming a fan allowed me to fall in love with it again, but in a broader way. I often find myself arguing with strangers and sometimes my sister about which players “my” teams (Liverpool FC and the Colorado Rapids) should buy and who we should sell. I’ve also learned to love the U.S. national men and women’s teams. I often scoured the internet for the next national team superstar that will bring the next set of trophies to our country.

painting by ayah Al-Masyabi

While these teams have different qualities, traits, and winning records, they’re always there when I’m sad, in pain, or feeling hopeless. The games always brought comfort to me and served as a distraction, even if we lost, no matter what I was struggling with. They’ve also been there when I was at my happiest and proudest.

If there is anything professional soccer taught me, it was that the sport means a lot more than just kicking a ball in the back of the net. I’ve become interested in how soccer works as an industry and how teams become successful on the highest level, like the World Cup. I am especially curious about how soccer works in the U.S. I want to know how a little kid becomes Tyler Adams or Sophia Smith and what it takes to get to their level.

Now when I go out walking in my neighborhood, or anywhere around me, and see kids playing soccer with their team, friends, or by themselves, I smile. I quietly wish them the best as I watch them having fun while trying to master the game and embody their soccer role model. When I am at the store, park, or an event and see someone wearing a jersey or shirt with their favorite team, even if it’s a rival of mine, I grin and sometimes strike up a conversation with them. I still play with my siblings, but not too often. I am content loving and being involved in the game from a distance and engaging in it in my own unique way. I find joy in seeing other people who love soccer just as much as I do.

Painting by Ayah Al-Masyabi

Ayah Al-Masyabi is a 17-year-old junior living in Colorado. She tackles her creative endeavors through writing, visual art, and, more recently, audio and video. Human stories and the narratives around soccer often influence the pieces she crafts. Ayah is an avid Liverpool FC, US Soccer, and Colorado Rapids supporter. She can be found curating her bookshelf, having fun with family and friends, at @ayahalmart on Instagram, https://ayahart26.wixsite.com/ayahal-masyabi, or her YouTube channel AyahSoccer.

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