My World Cup Runneth Over (GUEST WRITER: Adrian R. Witzke)

This post has been rumbling around my mind for weeks as World Cup Fever swept through our home and city, but I pretty much scratched the idea because I don't really know the rules of the Soccer and I am not a Super Fan. Lucky for me I am married to Adrian Witzke; soccer fan, soccer player, PS2G co-founder (soccer non-profit), and Soccer Dad! He is far more qualified to write about soccer than I, so with great pleasure, I introduce my first GUEST BLOGGER!

My (World) Cup Runneth Over - Adrian R. Witzke

The 2014 World Cup ended with two majestic touches of the ball from Mario Goetze’s chest to his marauding foot, and then buried in the Argentine goal. It was one of the most beautiful feats of skill I’d seen in a soccer game let alone in the most hallowed match of them all. My inner German ancestor bellowed and lost his voice in triumph, as I simultaneously sympathized for the diminutive Argentine soccer magician, Messi. He came so close to becoming etched as one of the soccer greats- and to whom I bear an uncanny resemblance—confirmed on three separate continents now. Ask me about the American Colony Hotel bar in Jerusalem some time, or the Cumbia club in Bogota. 

My wife says I'm the love child of Messi and Germany's Klose.                             Harlem didn't know what hit it July 14.

My wife says I'm the love child of Messi and Germany's Klose.                             Harlem didn't know what hit it July 14.

What a final! What a tournament! As a lifelong player and fan - I felt completely satisfied with the level of play, drama and emotional highs and lows that Brazil 2014 offered. Even my wife climbed on board my soccer crazy train and was swept up in the passion of the jogo bonito (Brazilian for the the beautiful game.) Now, if only she’ll wear my German jersey on date nights. ;)

Poignantly, the tournament’s end also marked the 5th anniversary of my father, Horst’s, death. He died young at 67. He was a German immigrant. A brilliant scientist. A stoic. A soccer fan. And the wellspring of my passion for the sport. My earliest World Cup memory is from 1978 when I was seven years old and we could only read about the games in the U.S. newspapers.  One early morning during the cup, I found the score for a West Germany game in our paper’s sports section, and I then prognosticated (lied) to my dad what the final score would be before he knew. I wanted to impress the mad genius with my soccer acumen (I was not a very good player), but I could see immediately he was on to me and met my prediction with a puzzled smile. A major feat for the man who made it crystal clear that the one thing we, my brother and I, could not do was lie to him. Mess up? Ok. But DO NOT lie. I guess in this instance he knew my passion for the game and my desire to please him made this offense forgivable.

Horst showed little passion outwardly as a man, but then there was this game. It was intuitive versus logical- with the ball’s unpredictable fluid movement, and mesmerizing chances to score or be denied by the acrobatic save of a deft keeper’s hands. Perhaps it served as an oasis from his ultra rational mind. Our opportunities to watch a game on T.V. were rare when I was young, but when we did an entirely different man emerged– really, more boy than man. Horst had emigrated from Germany to Canada after World War II when he was 12 years old. His father, a postman, had been killed during the war and he never really knew him. Horst was the only child of five to go to university and went on to receive a PhD in Chemistry. His life and vocation were marked by the need for order, discipline and control.  I’m certain as a poor immigrant’s son and child of the war, survival trumped emotional availability. As his son, I never doubted his love, but those words were rarely expressed.  He was an academic and teaching was his love language.  But soccer softened that part of him. As I grew older, we would watch matches together, and to my delight, I witnessed the game pop a valve on his heart and for 90 minutes his esoteric intelligence subsided while he squealed with joy or moaned in agony with the sublime or utterly disappointing play.  He engaged like a child. This game has the power to transform.

    Horst playing soccer with grandson, 2006.

    Horst playing soccer with grandson, 2006.

Of the all the fragmented parts of myself, many inherited from my father, the love of soccer has recently shone brightest. As a young dad and after many years away from the sport, life’s pressures compelled me back onto the field. I quickly remembered why I was so enthralled by the smell of fresh cut grass and the black and white spinning hexagons on that maddening ball. I got lost; forgetting myself and the burdens of fatherhood, marriage and confounding career challenges. The field became hallowed ground. I felt closer to God when I played. Looking back, it was an awakening moment– one that would inform a series of next steps.  

After lacing my cleats again ten years ago, I’ve played pick-up soccer regularly. One of those pick-up games two years ago led to a chance meeting with Danny Hoyos, founder of PlaySoccer2Give (PS2G).  I shared with him a documentary idea I had about filming American kids learning about soccer from children in the developing (majority) world.  He told me how PS2G was raising funds using the average urban pick-up game as a fundraising event for charities that use soccer to bring dignity to children where it’s been either lost or stolen.  I already knew soccer had the power to transform, but I did not know to what extent. We were simpatico and I enthusiastically partnered as co-founder of PS2G to help tell the stories of how soccer was truly becoming a global force for good.

Amazingly, I had the privilege of directing two documentaries this year highlighting charities in Israel and Colombia that use soccer for social transformation. The charity organization in Israel, Mifalot,  uses the sport to teach peace and coexistence to Palestinians and Israelis, and also life skills to children and adults with special needs. Given the news reports highlighting racism and violence that we are receiving every day, I want to emphasize that there are many people trying to press against the tide of hate and discrimination, and some of them are using soccer to achieve that change. My time in Israel fostered a new understanding of the very real and complex challenges they face, and served as a sobering reminder of those who contend with conflict and the threat of violence daily. For them, the pursuit of peace is worth any associated risk.

My father told me one of the only times he was ever provoked to violence was not long after he emigrated from Germany to Canada. He had a rudimentary understanding of English, and on the school bus one day, a boy heard him speak with an accent and crassly called him a Nazi. My father hit that boy and wasn’t proud of it. But he could not be considered such a monster.   Horst believed propaganda was the surefire way to reduce a human to a category, and that was a lie.  And that was unacceptable. My father’s belief that all human beings deserved respect would be another key value he bestowed to me in his lifetime.

   Horst Witzke, circa 1966, studying in West Germany.           Adrian Witzke, 2014, filming In Israel.                                            

   Horst Witzke, circa 1966, studying in West Germany.           Adrian Witzke, 2014, filming In Israel.                                            

Five years ago, I had no idea- though I should have, that this game would be intrinsic to my life’s mission. My Dad had been battling cancer and was not doing well. I got the call, “Your daddy’s gone”  just as I walked off the pitch of a pick-up soccer game on the west side of Manhattan. The sun was setting on a hot New York July evening.  I was wearing my Germany jersey. I could smell the grass. Feel the dirt. I slumped with my ball and thought about the man who had given me so much – particularly my love for the game. I believe Soccer is a great leveler.  A field. A ball. A set of simple rules. You. Me. Sweat. Joy. I’ve witnessed first hand how soccer is uniquely conquering injustices globally. It is a movement to which I am committing a substantial part of my life.

Please watch my documentaries about Israel and Colombia and the rest of the World Cup Project. Learn more about PS2G here. 

Peace.

For Horst.