[THE PITCH] The head coach of Gothenburg FC, Torbjorn Nilsson, is a former football striker and quite the celebrity here in Gothenburg. Around Sweden, they call him “futbollsgud,” and his likeness graces a skyscraper-size-billboard in the major soccer arena in the city center. Although the size of the poster accurately depicts his statue in the community, he is rather a gentle giant. Both humble and demure, Torbjorn has a sheepish charm. The girls tell me that when you get to know him, he’s quite the jokester. I can’t wait to start my Swedish lessons, so I can get in on all the fun! But despite the language barrier, he still conveys a welcoming warmth.
Torbjorn appreciates the joy in soccer and makes an effort to spread it throughout the team. Practice generally begins with ab activation, aka belly-aching laughter, during Torbjorn’s odd and creative drills. Some days he gives us words to spell out as a team with our bodies on the field. In a recent practice, we had a mission to physically flip over our resistant partner’s body. As one player flopped and made themselves as heavy as possible, the other tugged and heaved to get their teammate belly up. Humorously, the smallest player on our team, Ingrid Wells, was paired Torbjorn. I was unsuccessful in this drill myself because I was too busy laughing as my head coach flipped my "Tiny" teammate like a pancake.
Still, when Torbjorn gives me tips, I soak it up like it’s the last drop of water in the desert. He laughed when I pulled out my notebook and started scribbling down his Swenglish. His jumbled language does not matter because for Torbjorn, soccer is a game of numbers, not words. He is teaching me how to assess my teammates on-the-field decisions, by breaking down their habits to the percentage (she is 70 percent offense and will only make a pass if she judges it to have a 80 percent chance of success.) He has demonstrated how a few inches of ball positioning relative to my foot can be the millisecond difference that wins the game. Lately, his lessons have focused on how to be a “clever” player…
Last week, we discussed the “culture clash” in soccer communication. I was taught from a young age that loud and clear communication was essential to being a great soccer player (you are never going to get the ball unless your teammates knows you want it and you are confident about it, right?); and now I am learning how to communicate without words through movement, using cues from my teammates, and reading the game. At first, I wanted to object and show him how if I call for the ball, I will still beat my defender into the space; but I remind myself that I am sitting in a meeting with one of Sweden’s all-time greatest strikers, and he is telling me how to become the best player I can be, not simply how to get by. Torbjorn seemed genuinely flabbergasted by my tendency to announce to all of the 21 other players on the field where and when I want the ball. “There is no deception,” he told me. And he is right. How effective would a play in American football be if instead of the quarterback calling a signal, “Blue 42!,” he shouted before the snap, “The wide receiver runs an inside route and I pass it to him.”
This week, Torbjorn and I went to the field to work on my movement and runs. He showed me how to get the timing right, signal to my teammates where I want the ball, and add some trickery to throw off my defender. At one point, we came to a run I was more familiar with. When I told him I felt comfortable with this, he responded with a grin, “Ah, yes, I have seen you make this run and you are alllllmost a clever player here, but…” Insulted? Yes, but smiling with him.
My life lesson here is in how to learn a lesson. Instead of focusing on the criticism, I must look for the opportunity to grow. I find this great striker’s humbleness humbling. When I normally want to debate until I have proven to the world that I was right from the beginning and all other arguments are flawed, instead I am trying to be receptive to these new ideas and add these new skills to my repertoire. I fully intend to stay true to the player I am and the style of soccer that I love. But I can still be me with some new influences. I brought an American outlook on football with me to Sweden, and the fresh perspective is serving to be an advantage for me here. But a wise traveler leaves room in her luggage for “souvenirs,” and I know that if I swallow my pride, I will have much to stuff in my bags on my trip home.
It’s hard to write about losing. This week, we played the second leg of the Champion’s League quarter final against Arsenal at home. We were fighting an uphill battle (having to win 2-0), but I woke up that game-day morning feeling as inspired and confident as ever. The game day was full of superstitious team rituals and butterflies in my stomach, followed by energy from the crowd and smiles from my mom (who had flown all the way here to support me.) I made a concerted effort to improve the things I had struggled with in the first game, and I had some success. We won 1-0, but it was not enough and this run at Champions League is over. I’m finished now. Ah finishing… something I did not do on game day!
Rookie for life, Christen Press