With the World Cup in Russia rapidly approaching, my mind wanders back to the summer of 2002 when the original Ronaldo and Brazil became kings of the world. At the same time, a small island in the Florida Keys was also gripped in World Cup fever.
I was a professional soccer player for twelve years in the United States and it seems like a lifetime ago. After retiring in 1996 and bouncing around doing various coaching and officiating soccer duties, I decided to move in 2002 from my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to sunny Key West, Florida. I worked several part time jobs. The one as sports writer for the local paper as well as a wave runner tour guide were among my favorites. There was always something missing though and I knew what it was: soccer.
The tiny island had no competitive teams for me to watch or coach. There was only one field and I would drive by it on my moped some nights and see adult foreigners kicking the ball around. I began to notice that every night had a different nationality playing the beautiful game. Monday was the Czechs, Tuesday the Haitians, Wednesday the Argentine contingent and Thursday the British lads. Ideas started swirling in my head as I thought that perhaps I could organize these players and form an adult league.
My first move would be to show up to one of their pick-up games and jump in and play. I gained instant credibility with my slick moves and goalscoring ability. Only one of the players from the Czech Republic spoke English and I approached him and he was very receptive as he translated my thoughts to the other players. This went on for a week straight as I played with everyone from the Central Americans to the U.S. Coast Guard.
It was time for me to get organized and put my master plan into effect.
I had officiated professional and college games so I would referee all the matches and I decided to call it the K-League. A small problem facing me was that there were no other officials on the island that could handle the intensity of games at this level. You need three referees for a soccer game but I took it upon myself to do all three jobs single handedly.
We had eight teams signed up and every Sunday we would play four one hour games and each squad was given a list of rules and a schedule. The players wanted the games to take place at night under the lights when the weather was cooler because it was summer and the heat was brutal during the day. I said absolutely not, we will start the games at noon as only the strong survive in the K-League. I acted like a big new league had come to town but if only the players knew that the whole thing consisted of me, my briefcase, cellphone and whistle.
The first two weeks were going well and I really didn’t know how I was able to run four straight hours and I can only surmise that it was pure passion for the sport and mind over matter. Only a few family members of the players showed up at the beginning. In week four, the Haitians hotly contested a penalty kick I had called against them and walked off the field. The other team was awarded a 3-0 victory. I didn’t say a word nor did I call the Haitians during the upcoming week but there would be definite consequences for their actions. When they showed up to play their next game, I informed them that their team had been kicked out of the league. The death penalty! They decided to protest by sitting on the field, basically saying that if they couldn’t play, no one could play. I would have none of that and picked up my cellphone and within five minutes the police had arrived and I explained what was going on. I then calmly informed the sitting players that if they didn’t leave “Mr. policeman is going to run all your names for outstanding warrants.”