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Getting Life Out of a Kick

Soccer fans: feeling World Cup fever year-round

Guillermo Matta controls the ball on his first touch in midfield, pirouettes with it at his feet, looks around as a defender hangs on him, and opens space with a pinpoint pass to a winger on the left. The winger loses possession. No score.

Still, the play leaves an impression.

It might have taken all of three seconds for Matta to receive and release the ball, but it felt a lot longer. Matta is one of those midfield organizers in the traditional Latin mode, whose elegant skills make it seem as if there is never a rush.

Such confidence is the mark of a pro, which is what Matta once was. From 1955 to 1959, he played for Universidad Católica, one of his native Chile’s Big Three soccer teams. He then was part of the Madrid club Castilla until 1965. Today, 65 years old and a cancer survivor, Matta may not have the speed he had as a young man, but he believes his best playing days are ahead.

Matta is one of some four dozen soccer fanatics who have been meeting at Brookdale Park in Montclair, New Jersey, for a quarter-century. They play year-round, in all types of weather.

“You get a little stiff,” admits Carlos Perdomo, 52, a Colombia native who spent the 1970s with the New York Hota Bavarians. “But you take some aspirin, pack some ice, and you’re set.”

The soccer matches take place four days a week. They play for 90 minutes with no halftime rest. It’s informal. After all, these are old friends. But it’s also hard-nosed. Many have played competitive soccer longer than they have known one another, longer than they have lived in the United States.

The Brookdale players come from seemingly every corner of the world and work in diverse jobs. On the field in one game last fall were U.S.-born players of various ethnicities as well as immigrants from Colombia, Croatia, Ecuador, Iran, Italy, Jamaica, Mexico, and Trinidad. The group included a physician, TV news reporter, pastry chef, and college professor.

Matta, who is executive vice president for marketing at the Manhattan office of French bankers Société Générale, says he enjoys playing today more than ever. “Playing professional soccer is everybody’s dream in South America, but now I’m a bit cynical about that,” he says. “Now that I play without obligations, I can really do what I love, which is play soccer.”

Not even a diagnosis of lymphoma in 2000 stopped him. “At first I was scared, and for the first month I didn’t want to do anything,” Matta says. He entered treatment and began to lose his hair. Then he decided to go back to Brookdale.

“He was bald and gaunt, and he’d get so tired he’d stop playing after 15 or 20 minutes,” recalls Perdomo. Matta says that playing even a few minutes built up his confidence: “It showed that, physically, I was able to take it.”

The realization that he could also take it psychologically came as a gift from the Brookdale gang. Perdomo recalls, “We’d say, ‘You’re doing great, Guillermo. Even if you only play for a while, you’re fighting back.’ Then his hair grew back and he started playing longer.”

The support from his soccer friends was key to his recovery. Says Matta, “The friendship and respect they gave me was very important.”

When Matta travels the world for work, he brings what he jokingly calls his “sickness” with him—and he is not referring to the cancer that has been in remission for five years.

To locate a team near you, visit the United States Adult Soccer Association website.

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