In Suzhou: Ajax

“14:00 this Sunday?” someone asks in the WeChat group. Our chat is named ‘五人小场群Wǔ rén xiǎo chǎng qún’ (Five people small field group) and holds 36 guys from the neighborhood, including me.

We play football without a schedule, usually weekly. Someone mentions a time, and critical mass (ten or more) either does or doesn’t form. Through WeChat we rent one of the eight football fields nearby and everybody pays 20 RMB (2,50 Euro).

It’s a small pitch and the pace is high. Five versus five, and when the opposing team scores two goals, your team gets replaced by people waiting on the sideline. The score resets to zero-zero. It’s a fair system. A good quintet can stay on the pitch for a while, but eventually they tire out and they concede two goals as well.

The guys are mostly twenty-five to forty years old — short or tall and skinny or tough. All of them are extremely welcome to me. I’m gradually losing my name ‘外国人Wàiguó rén’ (foreigner) and being named by my Chinese name ‘雅普Yǎpǔ’. To be fair, I’m also still learning their names. Some have Chinese names made from characters I don’t even know, six others have English names, three of them are Any, Andy, and Alan.

I thought I could practice my Mandarin with them, but the game is filled with either single word-phrases during play like “Eh!” and “后Hòu!” (behind!) — or we’re catching our breath after conceding two goals.

These guys have been playing football together for around ten years, and at the start the pace is too high for me. Newly-used muscles in my legs cry out. All around me, people move in invisible patterns, and I fail to cover the person behind me. The passes are short and fast. Sometimes my long legs help to intercept the ball, but often they feel clumsy. Tooooo slow.

But I get the hang later, and the first goal I score is a big relief, even though I accidentally tapped it in. After that I get a chance for open goal —I’m scared to miss — but in it goes too. But my third goal is on full merit.

Another difficulty during play is our clothes. Teams are assembled and reassembled every time the score reaches two, and colors of team-members don’t correspond. Some wear red or orange shirts from Chinese clubs I don’t know, two others wear shirts from the Spanish national eleven, and others just wear sports clothing. Sometimes they are on your side, sometimes they’re not.

Myself, I’m wearing the red-and-white from Ajax Amsterdam. Amsterdam is a long way from Suzhou and Shanghai, but football is universal and I’m delighted to share it with the locals, because it makes me feel a local too.