While Americans call it “soccer,” the rest of the world calls it “football” and “the beautiful game.” For writer and Tufts University professor Jonathan Wilson, the game was an international passport that helped him find friends, community and solace wherever he went. He’s written about his love of the game in his new memoir “Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball.” We chatted about the role “football” has played in his life and his thoughts on next year’s World Cup.
You’ve played soccer all over the world. Where’s the oddest place you’ve played a pick-up game?
In the summer of 1968 I was in Israel on Kibbutz Lehavot Haviva. A pick-up game took place on an outdoor basketball court between English volunteers, like me, and a group of new kibbutzniks who had recently arrived from Argentina. Two years earlier, England had beaten Argentina in a vital and controversial World Cup match, so this benign pick-up game soon turned into a grudge match. Mutual Jewishness was set aside and ugly national allegiances triumphed.
My father grew up in London about the same time as you, so I think I understand the anti-Semitism that was occurring. But explain to Bostonians how being Jewish is different there than here, and how soccer helped with that.
Well, this is a big question. I happen to believe that the East Coast of the U.S. is the closest thing to paradise that Jews have experienced in their long history. In the England in which I grew up, anti-Semitism was endemic in sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. Maybe things have changed; I left in 1976. As far as soccer is concerned, I played organized soccer in London until I was 18 in exclusively Jewish leagues. This was because Jews played on Sunday, for obvious reasons, and the Sunday, or Lord’s Day, Observance Act prevented Christians from playing on that day. This strange state of affairs persisted well into the 1960s.
Are you still playing pick-up matches? How has your approach to the game changed over your playing career?
I stopped playing soccer 14 years ago after I tore my ACL on my first day participating in an over-50’s league. My doctor, Tamara Martin, a former kick boxer, didn’t want to operate on me. She thought I shouldn’t have been out there anyway—I have cervical stenosis—and she didn’t want to encourage me. I told her the last goal I had scored was really spectacular, and she said, “Hold on to that memory; you’re done.”
Finally, who is your pick for the World Cup next year?
Only South American teams have ever won the World Cup when it is played in South America. Brazil does not have the best team, but they have a huge home field advantage. Lionel Messi never plays as well for Argentina as he does for Barcelona. If it’s different this time, Argentina has a great chance. Spain is, modestly, in decline. Germany is always strong. Of the dark horses, Belgium looks very good. But, of course, England will win!
Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!
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