My soccer Dad

“Goooaaal!!!” I yelled from the bleaches. A few moments later a loud whistle blow signaled the end of an indoor soccer match. The players high-fived the tall, ginger-haired guy who just scored. All I could see was broad smiles shining even through the nebulas of dust lit by the sunset’s reflection in the gym’s large windows. My Dad, who was the goalkeeper of the team that snatched the victory in the last moment, was also smiling. In his early 70s, he still played indoor soccer twice a week. He mostly held the fort as a goalkeeper and yelled at his teammates to keep the ball far away from his gate. His stocky body was still strong but it didn’t take kindly the falls down to catch those hard-hit balls. The bruises on his torso, hips, and hands kept their dark shades of blue for weeks.

But right now, he was happy. Where were the paparazzi with their wide-zoom cameras to snap a winner’s beaming face? Nowhere in sight. Neither were there large or even small crowds of die-hard supporters. I was the only fan of today’s game, “imported for the occasion all the way from America,” as my Dad announced before the match. The game took place indoors in the court with cracked wood floor, pigeons’ poop swept to the corners, and an occasional whiff of cat piss. I wondered if the wives, girlfriends, or daughters have ever set the foot here, or I was the first and perhaps the last female in attendance. I couldn’t blame the women for choosing alternative activities for their Friday evenings. I already used two packs of Kleenex—not to wipe the tears from the high-stake game’s emotions—but to keep my allergies to dust from complete meltdown.

None of these environmental hazards mattered to the ten men on the court. They were happy to play regardless of the outcome. Happy to get together. Happy to celebrate the game and other occasions in a bar across from the gym with copious amounts of laughter, high-cholesterol food, cigarette smoke, and alcohol. It didn’t matter to them that the bar ambiance was only a hair better than the gym’s conditions because the guys carried joy and celebration with them no matter where they were.

Steeped in the equal portions of post-game fervor and vodka, their bromance has been flourishing for the past 15 years. And my Dad has been at the center. Many of his fellow players—nearly half his age—saw him as a father figure. “Nikolaich,” they called him lovingly. (Nikolai is his paternal name). In a country where male life expectancy is barely 66 years, many Moldovans are fatherless by their 30s. As a war orphan, my Dad knew how it was to be without a father. So he opened his heart to these men, as he has done many things in life—with gusto.

He was their coach in soccer and beyond. He called each of them on the day of the game to confirm and motivate, if needed, to come to play. He did this twice a week for more than ten years, rain or sunshine. He collected pool money to arrange for someone’s birthday. He gave advice, and often he was simply there to listen to their woes. A man of few words, he offered his quiet, calming presence.

It’s been already two weeks since he passed away. Time both flies and stands still for me. And while the void in my heart created by his untimely death will be there for a long time, the memories of him are as alive and happy as before. As your most loyal fan, I will always yell “Goooaaal” in your honor, Daddy, because you’ve been the best life teammate to me and others. Thank you.