My six-year-old daughter tells me she wants to play summer soccer. We visit a shop called “Rebel Sport”. It is brightly lit, full of strange clothes made of mesh or elastic, and morose teenage shop assistants with their noses sitting over the tops of their masks. My daughter looks great in her new boots and shin pads, and I can picture her as a future All White. My partner informs me the women’s team is called the Football Ferns, and my daughter’s father messages me to say I’m not allowed to call it soccer, the correct term is football.
I’d never have thought I’d write my first column on sport. I am a nurse, a novelist, a single mother, with enough useless material on life and love to fill the self-help section of your local library. I can’t name a single All Black. I do not know the seasons of cricket. World cups have come and gone over the years, and I care not.
In an odd turn of fate, my partner D’Arcy is a sports broadcaster for Newstalk ZB. It’s his life to talk about sport. Through him, I glimpse a world with a huge audience, outstanding displays of physicality (his words), and people bashing each other up for money (my words). Our attendance at sporting events has been limited due to the pandemic, but we went to a netball game last year. The auditorium was packed, and I was in awe of the springing, pivoting, leaping players that seemed so very tall even from my seat high in the stands.
I cast my mind back to a book reading I’d participated in with three other local writers and complimentary beverages. Two people turned up. One was my friend, and the other was a homeless man who wandered in off the street and seeing our looks of desperation was too afraid to leave. He sat on a chair and listened and nodded a lot, holding a cup of wine he did not want.
Week one of summer soccer sees fifty kids hit the field. They quickly form a huddle. Balls go flying in all directions. My daughter, lonely and ball-less, casts me a plaintive look. I scan for a ball, but every ball has a foot attached to it. I have paid $35 for this season, she should at least have access to a ball. I want to shout at the coach but he is very young, and I don’t want to scare him. I grumble instead to another parent. The parent points out only half the children have balls, and my daughter is supposed to be a chaser. After a few group activities, the kids are split into teams for a game. My daughter spends the entire game chatting with a friend.
Week two of summer soccer, and the main excitement of the match is from my child’s shorts and their failure to stay up. She is not wearing underwear. I rush home. When I return, I signal to her to leave the field and we retreat behind a bush to remedy the issue. I spend the rest of the game chatting with other parents. I hear the winter soccer team for my daughter’s age group will play on a Friday night and the parents drink mulled wine from thermoses. I hope my daughter will want to play winter soccer. On the field, my daughter and her friend are practicing cartwheels. I feel happy because she’s happy, and her shorts are staying up.
By week five, the lurgy has hit in full force. There are considerably less kids, so there’s less need for “chasers” – all children get a ball. After, I will ask my daughter if she’s enjoying summer soccer and she will say she is. When I ask if she has scored any goals, she will look at me suspiciously. ‘Have you not been watching me, mummy?’
It is a large field. When all the children are placed in the same fluorescent bibs, your child can be hard to spot. I do not tell my child this. She likes her every deed to be watched and admired. My mind often wanders as I seek her out, and I find myself musing on how much New Zealanders get behind our sports teams and athletes. Do we do the same for our artists and writers? No, we don’t. Of the 50 top-selling fiction books of 2021, only two of them were by New Zealand authors. Every time a sculpture is installed in a local park, we do not get intelligent analysis. We get a cost exposé in our local newspaper and calls for its removal.
Yet we have a vibrant and diverse creative community, beautiful galleries, and our literary festivals such as the Auckland Writers Festival welcome tens of thousands of visitors every year. There does not need to be a dichotomy. I remember a “writer’s retreat” I attended, (basically an excuse for a group of us to abandon our children for beach time and gin) and how my fellow writers insisted on watching the Olympics every night. When I attended a BBQ with D’Arcy and some of his motorsport friends, my fear of long awkward silences was unrealised when I chatted with an artist who taught painting to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
There’s something healthful about partaking in varied cultural activities. If, like me, you find the entire concept of sport odd, you can still support your child in their physical endeavours. If to you, sport is the holy grail — you can still buy a book written by a local author from an independent bookstore. If you’re an All Black, you can buy expensive paintings to hang on the wall of your McMansion.
It is the last weeks of summer soccer. Elsewhere in the world, the sky is falling. Yet here we are. Late afternoon at a park surrounded by liquid ambers seeing their first touch of autumn. In the distance, a father and son are playing basketball, teenagers are playing tennis, a boot camp class is doing press-ups to old-school hip hop blasted from a boombox. And us parents are reclined on the grassy bank, watching our children trying to kick a ball into a net, and feeling happy for it.