Word Association Football

1. "Why do you like playing soccer so much?" a condescending acquaintance once asked me. The game takes you away from your world. The soccer pitch is a place of supreme tranquility. Its intensity makes all those tiring troubles disappear, silences the noise roiling in one's consciousness, suppresses the melancholy that weighs on your mind when night comes. During those moments, you do not worry about anything other than the game. Winning it is your only concern.

On Sunday at 4 P.M., we showed up for the first game in the international Writers' League tournament, against the English national team. We had been preparing for this moment for over eight months. In the morning I awoke with a clear sense of impending doom. I dreamt of Hector, our Argentinian coach at the Ziv community center in Jerusalem, who always told me: "Kid, you'll never be a player until you learn to keep quiet and obey instructions." I told him that the new coach, Udi Sharabani, also yells at me constantly. He said that the coach is always right.

In the fourth minute, they scored a goal. The truth is we were pretty shocked. In the 20th minute, the ball headed toward me, bounced on the grass and then came a powerful shot with the right leg and Israel scored its first goal. I rushed toward to the small crowd sitting in the bleachers still wondering: When was I ever so happy? The answer was fairly simple: At a soccer game against Beit Nehemiah at the community center when we won 5-1.

During the three days of the Writers' League tournament we created a world in which there was nothing other than the game: no commitments, no disturbances, no world. We cursed, broke legs (that is, the English broke the Germans' legs and vice versa), swore to victory and glory; a German player even cursed a referee and got the red card. Suddenly we discovered a window onto the world of childhood where all complexity is eliminated: There is us and there is them, there is winning and there is losing. And we beat England 3-2 after a perfect game by our defense and two goals by Udi Sharabani.

2. Musa Okwonga is an English poet and the only black player on their team. He is a tall, young guy with a mustache, who eventually turns out to be the best player on the English team. During the game, he kicked me in the leg. "Man, take it easy," I shouted at him. He appeared to be insulted. "Okay, I'm just a little weak," I tried to reconcile with him as we continued to run side by side. "Me too," he said. "I'm a poet, damn it."

In the evening, when we met, he told me about his poetry, which sometimes is connected to sports; for example, there is the poem pondering who is the greatest boxer of all time. Mohammad Ali? No, it is London, the city. The city that withstood all the plagues, fires, travails, terrorism and the Blitz, the city that Musa believes embraces all the ethnic communities within it. Rarely do you meet a person who loves his hometown so much. It would be interesting if one day an immigrant from another country (who is non-Jewish) could write a similar poem about Tel Aviv.

The restaurant chosen for dinner in order to show the Europeans some Oriental delicacies is "Itzik Hagadol" in Jaffa. It was a kind of dizzying journey among different cultures. The tables were crowded with fascinating people. We talked to a German writer about "The Tower," a book by a young writer from East Germany who accurately describes life in communist Germany during the 1980s. The critics acclaimed it a wonderful book. Immediately afterward, around one table English, German and Israeli writers discussed the "Les Bienviellantes" (The Kindly Ones) by Jonathan Littell. Was there really a total failure in building the character of Max Auer? Talking to an English writer living in France, we discovered how the book was received in each of those countries and how he believe the English will receive it when it is released there in March.

We sit next to Marcus du Sautoy, who wrote, "The Music of the Primes;" the Germans broke his hand during their game. I am a bit curious to ask him about string theory in physics. For years this subject has interested me, but I do not know anyone who understands anything about it. Someone said it is inappropriate to ask a mathematician questions about physics.

My friends explain to them that all of these dishes are not exactly Israeli - some are Lebanese, Moroccan or from other locales. They already know about falafel and the stories behind it, "it's the new McDonald's" laughs one of the Englishmen.

We are on a field in Ra'anana, watching the game between Germany and England. The Germans are clobbering the English 6-1. We sit in the bleachers and chat about the game, but a certain worry begins to overtake us. I fill with fear as I watch the Germans and the English rip into each other. Amichai Shalev says to me: "Baram, the Germans are going to kill you tomorrow." I remember the previous game in Germany. We lost 4-2. In the first half we roamed around the pitch and basically tried to keep away from the Germans and from the ball. In the second half, after they were already ahead 4-0, the fear disappeared. This time we have to show them right from the start."

One look at number 26, Wolfgang Maria Bauer: He looks like a statue of a medieval period fighter. Okay, it's a good idea to be a little scared of Bauer.

3. On the morning of the final match against Germany, I come to the locker room and see Yali Sobol, the captain Assaf Gavron, Lior Garty and Yehezkel Nafshy getting dressed for the game. When everyone is wearing the national team kit you look at the people (well, almost everyone) as if you are on ecstasy, and see only the good ones. Little habits suddenly seem highly inspired.

We stand at the midfield line. I look at Bauer and imagine him holding our entire team in the palm of his hand. I try to silence my imagination; it always happens around the 10th minute. But by the 10th minute the score is already 1-0, to them. By halftime, they lead 2-0.

We go down to the locker room realizing that we were pretty pathetic. Suddenly Georg Blochman of the Goethe Institute stops me. Georg is a doctor of literature, a man with broad horizons and a sensitive soul, and one of my favorite people in Tel Aviv. He grabs my hand and tells me: "I expected a lot more. Where are your goals?" I mumble in Hebrew: "George, lekh tizdayen" (fxxx off) and in English say: "it's not over yet."

During the half-time break, in the locker room, Ori Kerman says, "Guys, you are scared of them." Assaf Singel, the second coach, yells at us. Hovering in the air is poisonous recognition of the professional catastrophe, of the impending humiliation. Now I imagine the Germans swallowing our players as if they were aspirin tablets.

4. The story of the second half is still not entirely clear to me. Suddenly the Germans seem like white stripes on a crosswalk. We attacked them relentlessly. Our goalie, Mordi Alon, gave a great performance, our midfield neutralized their midfield and the attack flew around the field like butterflies and stung like bees: three amazing goals by Roi Shani and then one more goal and the score is 4-2 to the Israelis.

The excess enthusiasm also led to scuffles. I jumped on a German player long after the ball had disappeared. He groaned. Bauer approached me and yelled: "Why'd you do that?" A pretty strange question: Maybe because I wanted to get the ball. It looked as if he was going to hit me. His friends moved him away.

Five minutes later Assaf Gavron knocked Bauer down. Is this Gavron very courageous or a dangerous lunatic, I mused. Bauer cursed Gavron and then afterward the referee, got a red card and was ejected from the field.

The English players watching the game said Bauer lacked perspective; after all this is a meeting of cultures, between writers. This immediately led to discussions about the collective character of the Germans, English and Israelis. These discussions are always boring.

I visit Norbert Kron, who broke his leg in the game against England. Norbert is a German writer and journalist. During our visit to Berlin we got friendly and appeared together at a school. Afterward, he accompanied me on a visit to the Jewish Museum. I felt guilty the whole time because it was clear that even if he wanted to leave in the middle, he would not dare.

We won the game 4-2 and won the tournament. The trophy was presented to us in front of a crowd of 50 people. That was more than enough. In the evening, at the poetry reading, everyone had become friends again. Writers read passages from poems and from their works. One of the Englishmen read a rather amusing feuilleton about Barack Obama's speeches.

Germany's lead striker Moritz Rinke read a passage he wrote about a visit to Ramallah, "Palestine Blues," which depicts the complexity of life in Ramallah and the injustice of the occupation. He thinks it may shock us. This pretentiousness really is amusing. And in general, after one of our outstanding fellows compared the Germans to dogs at the Berlin event in the presence of the German foreign minister, it seems that even a little more vitriolic criticism would have been received with understanding.

We say goodbye to the Germans and English and disperse into the night. It appears that once we are already far removed from these days, everything will seem like a strange dream: A soccer tournament where Israel defeated England and Germany and won the trophy. Now there is talk of a Writers Mondial tournament in South Africa in 2010. Here is a reason to stay alive for the near future.