This is not the A-League but the Kids are definitely alright

Low-hanging gums creak welcomingly as we make our way down the cracked, undulating pathway. My son – torn between scurrying ahead and staying close to me – surveys the expanse of green lawn before us, trying to pick out an ally, his hand gripping mine. He soon spots one and I feel his hand worm its way out of mine until the sensation is no more than a memory. I watch him run along the path, the stops in his boots clattering on the concrete like a billy goat on a bridge. He weaves his way through the burgeoning crowd of parents and volunteers and joins his friend in a game of kick to kick.

The familiar scent of a barbecue firing into life tickles my nose and the whir of Aldi coffee machines compete with the murmuring huddle of parents straining to hear the club president’s address. A ball skids past and scatters a pile of plastic cones, a boy wearing an AS Roma jersey chases it down, his face etched in concentration as he tries dribbling it back. He fails and sinks his foot into the ball instead, pleased at the resounding thump sound it makes.

I linger at the rear of the crowd, watching as the newbies soak up the overload of information about uniforms, gala days and the club’s coaching methods and wait for the coach to catch my eye, offering a greeting nod when he does.

The coach herds the forty or so kids into a semi-circle and asks them if they’re ready to have fun. A mish-mash of colour – they chorus ‘yes’ in response, laughing and leaping excitedly. The coach signals for the volunteers to stand in a line and gives each of us a group to look after. We marshal the kids into rows of six and wait for further instruction.

My group – the five-year-olds — are tasked with playing a game of target practice. Names are exchanged but none are remembered, by me anyway. Instead monikers like mate, champ or buddy are used. They splinter off into pairs and I explain the rules, hopeful they’ve understood me, hopeful I am able to be understood. This is my first session as assistant coach and the neurosis of failing seats itself comfortably within my psyche, eating popcorn, like an expectant filmgoer.

Instructions issued, the tiny tyros take aim and upon my urgent hollering, fire their shots at the three balls nestled on plastic cones before them. Everyone misses. I rush from one pair to the next, encouraging them, consoling them, rectifying their technique. Technique. It’s an interesting word to use for a group of five-year-old kids hammering misshapen footballs at stationary targets three feet away. But they try. By god do they try. And it doesn’t take long before one of them succeeds. Stefan, the Macedonian kid in a Chelsea jersey, tugs at my shirt, shrieking manically that he hit his target. He stands smiling, his chest thrust outward in triumph, his eyes sparkling with the kind of eager pride only a child can muster. I congratulate him and set him loftier goals which he enthusiastically strives to achieve.

It doesn’t take long before they all start improving, as one by one, inflatable cannon balls hit target after target after target. Left foot, right foot, it doesn’t matter. Even the poor kid who didn’t know how to kick is actually kicking, and kicking well. Each child runs to me, shouting their victories, my hand perpetually high-fiving. One of them, the short Indian kid in a Manchester United jersey hugs me. I am drenched in their euphoria.

The coach’s whistle pierces the tumult, signalling the end of drills and time for the real thing. Six-a-side soccer in its most fundamental state. My kids hurry to their drinks, while I dole out bibs and issue words of encouragement. We huddle together, and as I re-enact the inspirational scenes from every sporting movie I’ve seen, my charges steel themselves for the contest. I remind them that while creating space and marking your opponent are both important, playing as a team and having fun trump all. Of every lesson taught, this they remember most.

Once again the whistle shrieks and a flurry of legs and arms and coloured bibs moves across the makeshift pitch. Somewhere within that mobile cage of legs and boots is a football, one begging to be let loose. Finally, as if Victor Moses himself parted the seas, the ball is squeezed out and the shifting mass of children erupts, chasing it down, frenzied. Whack. A goal is scored. Some kids rejoice, others are sullen, others still are bemused by it all, until the game is restarted and there is another ball to hunt.

“Blue ball!” I cry, shambling after a wayward strike. Huffing and puffing, I find the ball resting against a sign. It reads:

“Look Around. The kids are having fun. The coaches are volunteers. The referee’s are humans. Relax and enjoy the day. This is not the A League.”

No, it most certainly isn’t. But as I hurl the ball back to a baying boy in a blue, I take a moment to soak in the organised chaos around me. Everywhere, in every game, a kid is pretending, hoping, believing he is someone else. One is Archie Thompson, another is Lionel Messi and somewhere in that sea of bibs and boots, is a child who can see the future and it is their name on the back of another child’s shirt. No, it is not the A-League, it is a community coming together to be more than the sum of its parts. It is the ideal that everyone can play, that everyone is good enough, that everyone is accepted. It is hope and it is joy. It is 9:30am on a sun-drenched Saturday morning in early April and it is the beginning of the under 7’s football season.

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