K, one of the original members of our team, wasn’t much of a player. Unlike the rest of us, he didn't play soccer growing up, and anyone can tell you that soccer isn't an easy game to ‘learn’ as an adult. Add to that the fact that he wasn’t athletic either and what you got was a player who aspired to one day become mediocre. He was, however, an integral part of our team.
He was the funniest, the most entertaining, a guy who could get away with mocking anything and everyone. Liked by all, the players and partners, he was one of the main reasons the team socialized together once the game was over. He could defuse any contretemps.
To use the old cliché, he was the glue guy.
We tried as best as we could to find him time on the field, tried to place him where he could cause least damage.
After six or seven years of games, his first goal arrived by accident. The ball hit his head and went in. The ensuing celebration lasted about ten minutes. I was surprised when the smiling referee didn't jump onto the pile.
It was after that goal that someone pointed out that K had yet to receive a card. All of us who knew him couldn’t begin to imagine a situation where he would get one. He had never come close to committing a hard foul. He was a nice guy, not very competitive, at least not on the soccer field. When they were handing out aggressive genes, K was having a Chardonnay.
Argue with a ref? Please. No one could remember him even getting a warning.
To show our appreciation, the team decided to get him yellow carded. Carefully and stealthily we planned our surprise. We decided the game, convinced the friendly ref, bribed him with the promise of a few post-game beers. Just yellow card him, get it over with, have a few laughs, and get on with the match.
K started the game. He wouldn’t commit a foul. The game went on and on and not one infraction. Our captain sidled up to the referee, told him to just make up a call. The ref complained that K wasn't even getting close to opposing players. It wasn't happening.
At one point, K was being pressured so he kicked the ball out of bounds. The ref castigated him for time wasting and flashed his yellow card. K was stunned. He didn’t even know that he was supposed to argue. Our team broke out in cheer. A new milestone. It took him a few seconds to get the joke.
This was years and years ago. But I remembered K today during Italy/Croatia game. The announcers told me that Balotelli was playing very well. The analysts at halftime repeated the mantra. I wondered whether we were watching the same game. The player I saw was indecisive. By the time he’d make up his mind what to do with the ball, the Croatian defense had adjusted. His passes were late, and he slowed the game. He had a few shots but none seemed dangerous.
But then I finally got it. If Balotelli didn’t go Balotelli—didn’t kick anyone, didn’t go completely insane—then he had a good game. That was all it took.
So I figured that in the 40 or so years that I’ve been playing soccer, the one player I knew who was least likely to go Balotelli was K. By that standard, K must have been an incredible player.