When my third child was born, and when unlike his sisters, he was not a girl, great plans were immediately afoot (pardon the pun) to turn him into a footballer.
You see my husband has been playing football since before he could walk, and after all the many, many girl babies we’d had (two) it seemed fitting that he finally had a son – someone to with whom to play the beautiful game. And it wasn’t my husband’s idea at all really – the remarks came from well-meaning well-wishers, and I completely understand – it’s small talk, it’s a thing people say when a baby is born, especially a boy after girls or a girl after boys.
But a little part of my felt defensive for my middle child. She was two-and-a-half when her little brother was born, and I’d noticed that she couldn’t pass a football without giving it a kick. As time went by, she showed more and more interest, and I started to wonder if perhaps she had picked up some of her dad’s love of football. It’s logical to imagine that at least one of the kids would inherit their dad’s skills, and there’s no reason to assume it would necessarily be the boy-child.
Time went by. My hypothetical little footballer got a soccer ball for her birthday, and I nudged the interest – just a little – with comments here and there. I started bringing the football with us on day trips and picnics, so she could have a kick about, and I told her I loved watching her play.
A couple of months ago, I saw her playing football with some friends – I watched as a boy who was bigger than her tried to tackle her. They ran all over the pitch, him marking her, she keeping the ball on front of her and always just out of his reach. I told my husband about it that night. “I don’t know enough to say if she’s really good,” I said, “But she’s interested and she enjoys it – let’s do something about it.” And he did – he found a club and brought her down to give it a try. And from there, he signed her up for a mini-world cup tournament, and volunteered himself as a manager. (Our kids are lucky that they don’t rely on me for the sporting side of life – this would never happen if it was my responsibility.) So now she has a team t-shirt and a team name and team mates and shin-guards and a huge, beaming smile every time she heads out the door to play a match and an even bigger smile when she comes home.
One night last week, when my husband was away with work, I had to bring her to her match. It meant bringing the other two kids out too, late on a school evening when they should all be getting ready for bed. It meant rushing dinner, and leaving the kitchen undone, and facing into solo bedtime a good hour later than usual. But I didn’t want her to miss her match, so off we went.
And oh what a sight awaited us. Over 1,100 children out playing football on a sunny summer’s evening. And at least 1,100 parents and big brothers and small sisters and managers and referees and volunteers. Small pitches for small kids, five a side, fifteen minutes each half. Colourful t-shirts giving identity and allegiance – to far-flung, exotic countries and to newly-met team-mates. Six- and seven-year-old girls who had only set eyes on one another a few days earlier but were already bonding as a team.
I watched for 30 minutes as my small girl gave it everything she had, and cheered with the other parents when her team-mate scored a goal, and cheered even louder a few minutes later when she scored a goal, and maybe, maybe there was something in my eye too.
Minding the runaway small boy during all this was tough going, but there were other parents with small kids too, and much moral support and swapping of horror stories, as we stood in our short sleeves on a Dublin pitch in the evening sun.
And it struck me that all of the talk of screen-time and obesity rates and lack of fresh air and exercise and this doomed generation of kids has conditioned me to think that the problem is everywhere. Nothing prepared me for the sight of hundreds and hundreds of kids out playing football last Thursday night. And hundreds and hundreds of parents on the sidelines. And of course it’s not just soccer – there are parents on GAA pitches and rugby pitches and swimming pool galleries and athletics tracks up and down the country, watching their children running and competing and bonding and trying.
And I guess it’s hard to see where the line is – the one between natural, innate interest and nurtured, power-of-suggestion interest, and maybe it’s really about where those two things meet in the middle. Wherever the truth lies, and whatever the future may bring, I have a girl who comes home smelling of grass and dirt and salty sweat – a girl with a beaming smile – a girl who’s loving just giving it a try.