The Beautiful (Intramural) Game

If you played soccer as a kid, you probably have memories of some kids (or yourself) rolling around in the dirt, picking flowers on the field, or of everyone swarming toward the ball with a fervor, nothing resembling a strategy or plan. These traits of youth soccer are an experience familiar to most.

A different, but related, experience—familiar to many, in a different way—is the high energy, grit, and intensity of professional soccer, the most popular sport worldwide. Yelling at referees, deep-seated rivalries, intense focus, and cursing in Italian are all traits of the beautiful game at the professional level, for the few that play, and the many that watch.

Two vastly different experiences of the same universal sport reach as far across the spectrum as possible. But they intersect every Monday and Wednesday night at Tenney Stadium.

It’s an hour after the NCAA soccer games have ended at Tenney—roughly 10:00 p.m.—and the masses begin to arrive. Less so masses, more so packs; they clump together throughout the brief warmups a few of them conduct and the putting on of cleats that most of them do. The referees— college students, not middle-aged men—have traded in the neon yellow jerseys for bright red hoodies, their stopwatches for iPhones. Despite some futile efforts, the players on the field don’t come close to matching. They shuffle around, figuring out positions on a whim; the first string is decided by who can take a knee fastest. The whistle blows. Tenney is now Anfield.

There are two intramural games being played width-wide across each half of the field. “Mo’s Bros” and “Team Culo” face off on the north end of the pitch, and within minutes it’s tied at one. The men and women are already dripping with sweat—despite the fact that it’s freezing—and each goal is followed by the opposition holding their heads in their hands. 

Andrea Bernardi is wearing a black long sleeve shirt, and compression shorts topped off with Marist basketball shorts. He also wears white cleats to the hour-long game—he didn’t just rush over from class. He also slows down when the ball crosses the 44-yard line. “It’s out, right?” He looks confused by the lack of a whistle. His teammate on the sideline hops back, “No, out is here!” They play on.

Bernardi’s teammate on the sideline isn’t playing. He’s a freshman, but yells like a coach. “Mark up!” “Look at Roco!” and the sarcastic coach’s favorite: “Thank you!” From Poland, Viktor Czernin has been playing soccer for a long time. A knee injury kept him from continuing organized soccer, but a month into his Marist career, he’s out here. Victor can’t play tonight; he’s under the weather. Under the weather, standing on the pitch in 50-degree weather, yelling for his team.

About 10 minutes into the game, Alessandro Pirovano strolls from the parking lot to the field, sits down, and carefully ties his cleats. The “Mo’s Bros” team captain, Louis Higuera, yells from the pitch, “Al! Jump in, we’re down a man!” Alessandro was born in Milan, Italy—soccer is in his blood, so he gets up and quickly walks on the field. His camo hoodie and black jogger sweatpants are relaxed. He doesn’t tap in, there is no whistle, and there is certainly no sub, but he steps on the field and it becomes his Duomo di Milano, his cathedral. He sprints for the ball, communicates with the team, and beams with excitement at every goal.                                                                                  

“Aisle 7” and “Kepa FC” face off in one of the 11:00 p.m. games. The warm-ups are standard but treated fairly seriously. The whistle blows and they’re off. There’s hustle and aggression in each play—if they’re going to play, they’re going to win. They chase the ball and fight for it once they have it. “Kepa FC” regains possession, leaving their goalie and a defender alone in their end.

“Hey Dan!” the goalie yells to the sideline. “How’d you guys do on the outline?” His voice gets louder as he gets closer to the sideline. He’s completely out of the goal and absolutely chillin’ with his teammates. The conversation about capping class continues and he makes his way back to the goal as “Aisle 7” takes possession. He makes the save.

When the games end—around midnight—the refs pick up the cones and the players grab their sweatshirts, maybe change from cleats to sneakers if they’re really into it. But then they leave. They walk to their cars or their dorms and carry on with their nights. Aside from the friendly handshakes, there is no ceremony to it. There is no locker room, no group recitation of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and no standing ovation.

The team celebrations after a goal are the closest thing to glory that comes from these nights. It’s 50-degrees and dark. The cold and lack of warmup time increase the risk of injury and sickness. Early October means midterms are coming and everyone is starting to get that sinus infection every college student gets around this time of year. But nearly everyone plays with focus, seemingly giving it everything they have left in their Wednesday at 11:00 p.m. tank. So, why?

“It’s a passion, for real.”

The grit and hustle, as well as competitiveness and aggression, come from the purest of intentions. “We’re playing for fun even though we’re serious,” Allen Mico, a sophomore from Rwanda, explained. The conditions don’t bother him. For him and most of his team, they’re used to it. “Back home we even used to play in the mud and rain. It doesn’t matter what time it is, we just played,” Mico said. “We grew up watching soccer and playing it, so it’s just a passion.

“I actually started in the streets.” After years of playing structured and organized soccer, here they are, back in the “streets.”

He finishes his sentence looks toward the field. Someone wanted to sub in, so he patiently waits on the sideline. He mumbles, maybe to himself, and maybe so someone else would hear: “I wanna go back on the field.”

Bernardi doesn’t have the same life-long relationship with soccer as most of his teammates.

“I never played actually” he explains. Growing up in Italy, his whole life was basketball. He came to Marist as a basketball recruit, but has left those days behind him. Now, he focuses on the love of the game, more for enjoyment than as a responsibility.  “It’s just fun to play with friends.”

Pirovano gave up the organized aspect as well. Although the focus and aggression ring true in intramurals, the main goal is simple: “I just like to play for fun, I like to play with friends,” he says. “It’s much more relaxing.”

And if you lose? “We lose and it sucks for the 10 minutes, but we quickly forget.”

This isn’t a deep investigation of what drives us to compete, or not compete. There is no analysis, and no interpretation of data. And no one has some controversial take or experience. Intramural soccer is simple. It’s playing with friends and playing with strangers. It’s taking part in a game that connects people from every background, from various corners of the world. It’s an avenue to revive one’s competitive spark, but only to a point. You care a lot and get hyped up, but when the whistle blows, it only sucks for 10-minutes and then you forget.  It’s simple. It’s the love of the game. 

Edited by Will Bjarnar

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