When I was in grade school in the 1950s, our recess activity during the warmer months always included a soccer game. This was odd for several reasons: No one I knew played soccer back then, there were probably 200 kids on the field chasing the ball around, and the goals were chain link fences that stretched the width of the field — maybe 200 feet. Tough on a goalie’s self-esteem.
It was during one of these post-lunch contests that I lost any enthusiasm I might have generated for the sport. At some point in the random stampede that passed for play, someone gave the futbol a good kick, it ricocheted off my head, and knocked me out cold. At least that was the report from the field relayed to my mother when she came to pick me up from the nurse’s office. I had no recollection of any of it. Only that one minute I was running around trying to kick the ball and the next I was waking up somewhere on a strange bed.
Years later, it became obvious to me that my initial contact with something resembling soccer didn’t really resemble soccer. Our principal, who presided over this chaos, was just trying to give the kids a way to blow off some energy midway through the long school day. Still, childhood experiences can have an impact on the way one sees the world, so I focused my feeble athletic aspirations on good old American games — Little League baseball, and junior high basketball and football. This was a bit ironic, given that my (lack of) size and (lack of) strength were probably more suited to futbol than to any other sport.
Of course, there were no soccer teams in my part of the world until I reached high school in 1966 (no one knew who Pelé was), and only because I had by then realized my relative limitations (see above) did I sign up for a tryout with our inaugural squad. I didn’t make the team for a number of reasons, the chief one being that I didn’t know how to play soccer. But I had apparently overcome any residual psychological effects of my grade-school collision with the sport, and while I never played the game again, I grew to appreciate its subtle pleasures vicariously, watching my kids chase the ball around from the sidelines when they were young, and tuning in every four years to the World Cup.
I’m not seriously considering taking up the sport again at this point in my life, but a new study out of Denmark suggests that it’s never too late to kick it around a little. Researchers at the Copenhagen Centre for Team Sport and Health found that untrained guys as old as 75 can gain dramatic health benefits by playing soccer a couple of times a week.
“The study revealed that inactive elderly men improved their maximum oxygen uptake by 15 percent and their performance during interval exercise by as much as 50 percent by playing football for one hour two times per week over four months,” lead author Professor Peter Krustrup reported in a statement released by the center. “Moreover, muscle function was improved by 30 percent and bone mineralization in the femoral neck increased by 2 percent.”
It makes sense, of course (except the bone mineralization thing). There’s a lot of running around in futbol, a lot of stops and starts and turns. All accomplished on a field of soft grass that’s probably not too hard on aging knees. Probably a lot more prudent for a guy my age than trying to hit a 15-foot fall-away jump shot over a 6-foot-something teenager on the hardcourt.
Except that I know something about basketball. I’ve played the game for years. Never been knocked out. And that probably counts for something.