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The Hardy Park Irregulars

Sunday 26th March 2017
When his visa comes through, Bastian Schweinsteiger will be going to Chicago. That shouldn't be an issue unless Donald Trump chooses to insult Angela Merkel further. I've written--more than once--on the German's struggles to get a game at Manchester United despite performing well in his rare opportunities. I would love nothing better than to see him play in person. Unfortunately, the nearest MLS club ground, Orlando City's, is more than two hundred miles away. As folks in Miami seem unwilling to allow David Beckham to put up a football stadium anywhere in their town, even with private funds, I've been pretty much relegated to taking in an entertaining match through electronic media. That is, until I discovered the Hardy Park irregulars.
Despite instant replay and match commentary's absence, viewing a match from the stands is better than watching it on television or via live streaming. Having only one chance to witness a moment maintains the marvel and mystery replays and analysis erode. Wondering how Messi weaved his way through four defenders, Dmitri Payet bent that ball into the upper corner, or Zlatan missed a sitter is to experience raw emotion. Watching it again and again mutes the feeling, like learning there is no Santa Claus. As well, trying to describe those moments, share their wonder, is infinitely more pleasurable than some retired footballer telling you what happened and how you should feel.

The only thing better is creating such moments yourself. Sadly, that's beyond me while I slowly rehabilitate after being struck by a hit-and-run driver. Anything more than a fifteen block walk does me in. Happily, that's how far I live from downtown Fort Lauderdale. I walk back and forth to work, enjoying the weather, taking side streets to avoid traffic, and skirting Hardy Park at roughly the halfway mark. Comprising a playground, tennis courts, a bowling green, and two athletic fields, Hardy Park is a two block square space nestled between the central north-south thoroughfare, Andrews Avenue, and the Florida East Coast rail line.

Last Tuesday, I stopped for dinner on the way home, then passed by the playing fields just after eight o'clock, far later than my usual habit. Rather than children playing or being drilled by coaches, a group of men, ranging from thirty to sixty years old, were having a game. Their shouts were enthusiastic, their play energetic. Having nothing better to do, I slipped into a bleacher seat to watch.

They were eleven aside. One team wore red, excepting a single player with a sleeveless orange top. Their opponents were nine blue shirts, a yellow, and a green. The pitch, meant for kids, was too small for their number, measuring 65 yards by 35, according to a groundskeeper I asked later in the week. Then again, given their age, it was probably just right.

Both sides had come to play but Red was having the better of it when I arrived. Three players especially stood out. Their short, bullet-headed striker wore an unnumbered Milan strip. In appearance, he resembled Adriano Galliani. His movement was more like Milan legend Pierino Prati. Quick for someone who probably beat my fifty-three years, he could set up on the flank, cutting inside to take on defenders, or sit in the middle to turn and shoot or pounce on poor clearances. When Red won possession, he would call for the ball, usually getting it.
The only times he didn't was when Cruyff had possession. Easily as old as Galliani, nearly as bald, but much taller, this fella had the Dutch legend's Roman nose, his turn, and a penchant for dribbling through the center to attack goal. Except he didn't like to pass. With the small pitch and so many opponents to beat, he never made it through. After watching him ruin four or five possessions, I couldn't help but shout out the next time he had the ball. "Give it to someone, for chrissakes!"
Blue's right winger, sporting a modest David Luiz/Sideshow Bob perm, was nearest me, looking on from just inside the touchline. Glancing my way, he offered a wry grin, then said, "Never."

Sure enough, Blue won the ball back as Cruyff hit a three-man wall. Sideshow Bob dashed off towards goal, raising his hand, shouting for the ball.

Red's other noteworthy player was their big right back. He stood well over six feet, wasn't afraid to get a tackle or a block in, and absolutely loved to shoot from distance. That the goals were a bit smaller, again for the kids, didn't matter. If he had space and couldn't pick out an open teammate, he was letting it go. Balls would sail high or wide, bouncing into the parking lot, over the fence or through the gate onto the bowling green. He kept trying, even when frustrated shouts came for him to fetch it back himself.
I quickly noticed arguments were rare. There was no referee. Or rather, there were twenty-two. Foul calls were respected, as were handballs. If a call was questionable, shouts of "Play, play!" came from both sides. If a legitimate complaint was ignored, "Give it to him," would be heard. Throw-ins always went to the proper side, as did corners and goal-kicks.

Yes, they took corners. For the most part, they were defended well, too, with a strong clearing header.

Now and then, a call rang from one side or the other to "Switch goalies." A tired player would drop back to man the sticks while a refreshed teammate came back into the outfield.

After a while, an electronic alarm sounded. Half-time. They all trotted over to the benches for water and a breather while someone reset the timer for a second forty-five. After five minutes or so, they were back at it.

As a Blue player stood over the ball at center-pitch to restart, the score was confirmed as Red 8-3 Blue. He turned and played it back to a mate. Red quickly resumed their domination but received less joy than earlier. A thirty-something Blue, who could have been a bearded Javier Zanetti, began to shadow Galliani. Their miniature Derby della Madonnina was intense, but the red shirt couldn't get past his man. After awhile, he drifted over to the far flank seeking out an easier mark.

Zanetti began to link up with SideShow Bob, who would run onto lobbed passes or hold up play before squaring inside. On one occasion, he shouldered past Red's left back and, before another defender could close him down, curled a shot that boomed off the far post.
With the score now 10-4, the shout to switch keepers came from Red. Unfortunately, this particular number one either forgot he could handle the ball or came from the Pep Guardiola School of Goaltending. He consistently tried to work the ball out from the box rather than pick it up. Red's lead was cut in half in less than three minutes. Unsurprisingly, "Switch Goalies!" rang out a bit sooner than usual.

A roly-poly Latino took his place but wasn't afforded time to munch on a meat pie or even an empanada. Instead, he was busy stemming the Red tide, parrying away two shots, knocking down and gathering in a few more. His distribution was quick and accurate, too. Blue suddenly found themselves fending off a succession of quick counterattacks.

They never closed the gap but did create the goal of the match, one that could grace any pitch, even the hallowed San Siro. Zanetti overlapped Sideshow Bob, then sent a cross, high and hard, just inside the box. If either Gigi, Buffon or Donnarumma, had been in goal, he'd have had no chance either to come out or stop the cutback header, driven inside the near post by a Blue who had timed his streaking run between Red defenders perfectly. I'd have paid to see that.

When the alarm sounded again, calling full time, I chatted with one or two players, who told me they come out every Tuesday evening. If all their matches are this enjoyable, I may spring for Hardy Park season tickets. The price is right, the value even better.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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