When football’s Bad News Bears of Belize took on the Mennonites
The Junior Coach’s prayer
Lord, hear me now, for I have forever changed my stance!
No longer, Lord, will I scowl like the Devil at mothers and fathers with angry parent syndrome. No longer will I feel more righteous than thou – for I am a blasphemer. Forgive me, oh Lord. What would I know? I ain’t no parent. I could never understand the levels of yelling and emotional abuse that a child so sorely needs. Lord, I ask you for the forgiveness of my own mother and father, who, despite my protests, would yell at me relentlessly whenever I failed to follow instruction. They were right, I was wrong. Praise you, Lord, for I have seen the light!
Pommy Dave and the clowns of Belize
Remember when you were a kid and your not quite right uncle would take you to the circus? In the dead time, between the trapeze girl who for some reason made the front of your pants rise awkwardly and the broken-spirited bear on roller skates in a propeller hat, a clown driving a Volkswagen would drive into the ring honking his horn and acting all goofy. He’d get out and open the doors and much to your astonishment another thirty clowns would pile out of the car in a big, psychedelic heap of disguised evil? Remember?
Welcome to Belize, home of the clown pick-up truck. Only the clowns aren’t clowns, they are a rag-tag bunch of cheeky kids from surrounding villages who come together twice a week to thrash out ninety minutes of something that mildly resembles football. Oh, and they don’t listen. To anybody. Not even their tactical genius of a manager for the day, me.
Being a professional house sitter is great. You really do meet some weird and wonderful people. Such is how I met Pommy Dave, the obnoxious drunk who possesses one of those horrible old man Florida leather tans and just happens to be coach of the Santa Familia under 15s football team. It seems, if you’re looking after Pommy Dave’s house, you’re also looking after Pommy Dave’s life. Thank God his wife went on vacation with him; not sure my wife would be too impressed by that situation.
So, at about 7:30 one morning, there was a knock on the window. It was Chayanne, a nice village boy who promptly asked a mostly naked me if I would like to coach his football team that evening. I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut could I? The previous evening, I had told his father, Jorge, how much I love football and, after an hour of drunkenly talking tactics and trying to convince each other how much of a better choice we would be rather than the current Belize national coach, Jorge Nunez, I guess old Jorge thought my bullshit was convincing. So I said, yeah sure, to which point, Chayanne said, Don’t worry Mister Ben, you don’t need to do anything; we just need a lift to the ground. On the contrary, little buddy, despite the lack of time for match day preparation, if you have the nerve to ask me to be coach, a damn good lesson in the finer points of football you will get. Since when was sport meant to be fun, little buddy?
Enter the clown pick-up; Pommy Dave’s Toyota Hilux. A ridiculous car with absolutely nowhere near enough grunt to carry seventeen pre-pubescent Cristiano Ronaldo wannabes; but I digress. With Chayanne acting as navigator, we began to make our pick ups. Stop here Mr. Ben, we have to find Luis. Stop over there Mr. Ben, that’s our goalie’s house. This went on for an hour; sixteen individual pick ups in three different villages. I know that you’re not supposed to swear in front of children but FUCK!
Joke: What do you get when you have seventeen Belizean boys in the back of a pick-up and a stupid, half-drunk Aussie driving? A catastrophe of the highest order just waiting to happen. Not very funny I know but there was a catastrophe that evening. Luckily it wasn’t clown car related. The catastrophe occurred within the first five minutes on the football pitch. My boys were bloody awful.
There is a large Mennonite population in Belize. You know, those solemn, humorless Amish types that migrated to Belize from Germany in the 1850s because the land is so wonderfully rich and fertile? Those dudes.
Well, the normal Belizean rules and laws do not apply to this quite incestuous and private community. They don’t require citizenship, they aren’t entitled to vote, they don’t need to bide by the correct farming methods, which are otherwise strictly enforced in Belize (the environmental impact of their farming methods leads to severe deforestation) and they aren’t required to adhere to the minimum wage laws. Some have been reported to have paid their Belizean workers just fifty cents an hour; just ask Chayanne’s father, who was promptly sacked by one family for no good reason after ten years of loyal service. So, that’s the Mennonites.
The ‘Special One’ versus the Mennonites
Why have I gone so far off topic? Yes! The Mennonites were our opposing team and the rules did not seem to apply to them in this case either. That being, given that this was an under 15s match, (boys aged 9-14) there seemed to be a hell of a lot of six-foot, bulky and highly skilled fourteen year olds on their team. Nonetheless, with the Mennonites playing in their away barnyard-chic strip, my selectively deaf riff-raff of a team and the fucking referee huddling under an umbrella because of the tropical downpour that went down right throughout the match, this night was going to be a trip.
So, with only three of the eight flood lights in operation, (it is the third world) the Santa Familia Wanderers did just that: wander. Boy did they wander. Kind of like the old-timey Jews but without purpose and structure. And the pitch was desert-like too. Not much grass at all, which I found strange given that we were in the midst of a daily tropical rainstorm. It was a levelled out gravel landfill.
After three minutes, I noticed one glaring problem: no one on our team was tackling! Oi! What’s your problem! Get in there and savage them! The prompt answer from our “left back” Sammy was sorry boss, no one wants to tackle, none of us can afford shin guards. Oh shit. Gravel plus poverty equals no shin guards and no tackling. What a sap am I.
Of course the Mennonites had shin guards and not one of their “fourteen” year-olds hesitated in tackling my nine year olds. This was brutal to watch. I don’t mind losing, but not to a pack of cheats who only intermingle with the locals when they want something. I had to think fast. We needed to cheat too.
After five minutes we were down two-nil and the referee had resorted to overseeing the match from the one spot in the middle of the pitch beneath the womb-like safety of his pink and purple flowered plastic umbrella. This, my friends, was serious man’s business.
So I massaged my tactical genius into a limber, supple hybrid of geometric lucidity and started yelling my head off. Park the bus! Get down here and park the bus! Do you want to lose ten-nil? Paaark the fucking buuuus! I was later to find out that we had lost our past three matches by an aggregate of 22-2.
I went all Kevin Sheedy circa 1984 grand final on their asses. I switcherood everything. Our flashiest and oldest player, Leroy, a moody boy with a voice in a pubescent limbo, was ripped straight from the midfield and made goalie. He was kind of pissing me off with his superstar gold boots (how can he not afford shin guards?) and mopey attitude, scissor-kicking like a god damn high-jumper trying to qualify for the Olympics. Let him mope in goal. At least he’ll be kept busy.
I put my two nine year-olds on the wings. They were nimble, fast, cheeky and brash and most importantly, pliable. When I yelled, they listened. Respect. Chayanne had the skills to pay the bills too. I needed his nous, his pace and his height. I needed him where the action was. So he became my unconventional everyman. My mister fix-it. My thumb in the leaking dam. The bus driver. Where the ball went, he went, and where he went, I ordered my charges to spread to give him room. The funny thing was that this shit was actually working!
Mary Poppins with the whistle and umbrella
The remaining players, I urged to scrag and pinch and kick and cheat at all costs. Don’t be afraid to give away a free kick. There were no yellow or red cards in this competition and with Mary Poppins refereeing in a perpetual umbrella blind-spot, we could get away with murder. And we did. I didn’t think it was possible for the Mennonites to look more scowly than they already did but I was wrong. Their fiery red faces called an even heavier rain. A figurative clap of heavy thunder shook the pitch into a seismic mutation as little Luis punched the airborne ball with his clenched fist away from danger and back into the midfield from whence it came. That was my play of the day. The kids were loving it. They were having a blast; laughing at the referee, poking fun at the ever-angering Mennonites and mocking my increasingly power-hungry yelling. We were like the Bad News Bears.
In the end, we only lost two-nil. Two goals scored in the first five minutes and then nothing. The boys did very well. I was proud of them. I encouraged them to shake hands with their opponents and congratulate them which, to their credit, they did. Bless their little hearts. After the match, we all hopped back into the slippery pick-up and once I had satisfied myself that I had driven through enough puddles at high speed in order to saturate the laughing boys with mud, I took them all out for fried plantains and Cokes. They deserved it. Their coach did too, after all, the final eighty-five minute was all him.
And then, just as my head was about to swell to a moon-sized orb, Adidas, the God of shin guards shone his stripy ray of light straight on down on me…the real ‘Special One.’
Hear me Lord, for I have repented. No longer will I yell at these boys for not adhering to their wise leader, no longer will I curse or spit or shake my head. For I have changed. Angry surrogate parent that I may be oh mighty Lord, I will remain clear of conscience from this day forth. For now, Lord, I must float my ark to Belize city, through the rain, the thunder and through all your vengeful lightning and mark my words, oh Divine One, I will buy these boys some God damn shin guards.
Now tackle ya little shits!
If you enjoy the work of Ben Munday and getting off the beaten track, then make sure check out his exciting new travel writing website, The Low Road.